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Digital Inclusion: Social Justice in a Communications Age

As many municipal wireless initiatives have a digital inclusion component, this is Part One of a special 3-part series on Digital Inclusion perspectives from around the globe.

by / September 29, 2006
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This is Part One of a 3-part series on Digital Inclusion perspectives from around the globe.

When do we recognize a shift in the fundamental social fabric of civilization? Where do we look to find better exemplars of participatory democracy? When do we realize that notions of justice have to expand to include a new ways of thinking about human rights? How do we change our institutions to support a more just and equitable world? These are the questions that thought leaders in the community and municipal wireless movement have been asking themselves more and more over the past few years.

An overarching theme that came up time and again during the interviews I conducted for this article is that we often think far too small when we talk about community networking. In a communications age, access to the resources, information, opportunities, and conversations that broadband services and community and municipal wireless networks facilitate is a vital element -- the foundation upon which the future of civil society rests.

The problem is to change the very nature of the municipal wireless debate -- incorporating a more liberatory language, more thoughtful actions, and the development and implementation of telecommunications infrastructures that directly improve the lives of users. At the heart of this debate is a tension between market economics and the "social contract" companies should be held to when providing critical resources to local communities. As Jim Baller, senior principal of the Baller Herbst Law Group, sums up, "digital inclusion is, or should be, a basic right of all Americans."

In citing the Declaration of Independence, Baller concludes that citizens have certain unalienable rights -- Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. "In the years and decades ahead, virtually everything that we do at work, in education, in public safety and homeland security, in medical care, in entertainment, in our communities, at the polls, etc., will depend increasingly on affordable access to advanced communications services and capabilities," states Baller. "No nation can lay claim to greatness without acting vigorously to ensure that none of its residents will be left out of the world."

What are the social and economic benefits of digital inclusion? Over the last few years, the importance of broadband services to communities has increased dramatically. Ben Scott, policy director for Free Press, puts it this way, "it is now beyond dispute that information and communications technologies bring advantages in education, job-training, social networking, health-care, and overall quality of life." However, accessing this critical resource is only one component of digital inclusion. As Scott relates, "Having the 'ICT trifecta' -- access to the Internet, the equipment to use it, and the skills to exploit it -- may well be the difference for many families between upward social mobility and a declining standard of living. For children especially, having access to technology is not a luxury, it is a social necessity."

The United States was founded on the notion of ubiquitous, equitable communications infrastructures. In fact, post-Independence, almost three-quarters of all federal employees worked for the Post Office. And the Post Office was built in response to the discriminatory policies prevalent at the time in the Royal Post of Great Britain. When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote "Democracy in America" in 1835, he praised the Postal Service and the newspapers and other information it conveyed as greatly responsible for the America's successes and the education of its populace. In discussing the Postal Service, de Tocqueville writes, "it is difficult to imagine the incredible rapidity with which thought circulates...It cannot be doubted that, in the United States, the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of the democratic republic."

Paralleling this analysis, Jim Snider, senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, states, "Democracy requires well educated citizens. The Internet has become a necessary foundation for a well educated, economically productive citizenry for the 21st century."

John Atkinson, director of Wireless Ghana, concurs, positing that "communication and information give people hope and inspiration. You might say that communication access fosters social well-being, and that information access allows for economic potential." Dr. Arun Mehta, president of the Society for Telecommunications Empowerment, underscores the stakes for civil society, "you cannot have democratic processes that exclude a significant percentage of citizens."

The change in perspective that many wireless pioneers advocate is to look at digital inclusion as a vaccine that enhances civil society and protects against disruption. According to Harold Feld, Media Access Project's senior vice president, "leaving aside any considerations of social justice, creating permanently marginalized and technologically isolated pockets spread throughout our rural and urban areas is recipe for disaster. It imposes huge social and economic costs and creates a permanent underclass disconnected from the broader society."

And yet, leading broadband analyses support the notion that the United States has done a remarkably terrible job of connecting its citizenry over the past half-decade. Baller puts it thusly, "For the last six years, the Administration has defined America's best interests as synonymous with those of a handful of giant telephone and cable companies. During this period, trillions of dollars of investment capital have evaporated, America has plunged from 4th to 16th (some would say 19th) in global broadband penetration, and we have fallen increasingly behind the leading nations in access to high-bandwidth capacity and in cost per unit of bandwidth."

If we believe that civic participation is a central tenant of democratic society, then we need to think about Internet access as equally important. During the past half-decade, Matthew Rantanen, director of Southern California Tribal Technologies, has seen the impact of broadband services on Indian reservations he's worked with, "the people of this community have a better sense of control of their own destiny. They feel that by their own hand, they have taken control and have provided themselves with the opportunities that the majority of the rest of the country has access to."

Given the nature of broadband access, it is important to point out that the positive impacts of digital inclusion efforts do not accrue solely to those who are newly connected. As Mehta summarizes, "The value of a network goes up proportional to the square of its size." Like many "commons" (e.g., education, roads) everyone benefits as more people have access to the resource. Feld puts it this way, "The 'knowledge economy' really does benefit by having new people look at old problems in different ways or bring in wholly new considerations, ideas and tastes. In other words, digital inclusion is not about averting social catastrophe, or noblese oblige to the underprivileged, or charity. It is a calculated investment to promote our national self-interest, as sensible as any Silicon Valley VC investing in a start up."

With the class and knowledge divide growing in the United States, racism and xenophobia on the rise, and increasing concern about everything from the state of the Iraq war to woeful child poverty and healthcare coverage rates, why should we be concerning ourselves with municipal wireless? As Joshua Breitbart, principal at the Ethos Group, warns, "To the extent we digitize the public sphere, we exacerbate the racial and economic divides already prevalent in our society. It's the new Jim Crow. The Internet still offers the promise of a broader, more participatory democracy. Community wireless -- and not just civic projects, but networks with true community involvement and ownership -- is the vehicle for bringing people online and into the digitized public sphere."

Thus, when we talk about digital inclusion, it is important to think holistically about the potential impacts of this work. Michael Maranda, president of the Association for Community Networking has been forwarding what he calls "Digital Literacy, Access & Equity" for years. "Digital Inclusion is an aspect of social justice or equity," declares Maranda. "The Communications sector is both one of the most profitable and one of the most essential in the modern economy. The quality of the networks and infrastructure we have, along with the social and human capital investments in our communities, will define our quality of life and the direction our economies and societal structures will take."

This article is part of a three-part series on digital inclusion. Bellsouth declined comment for this series. Repeated e-mails and phone calls seeking comment were not returned by AT&T, Comcast, Earthlink, Insight, Qwest, and Verizon.

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Sascha Meinrath is a regular contributer to Digital Communities and the Founder and Executive Director of CUWiN.net. Sascha serves on the Board of Directors for CTCnet, a US-based network of more than 1000 organizations united in their commitment to improve the educational, economic, cultural and political life of their communities through technology. In 2006, Sascha founded EthosWireless.com, a wireless consultancy focused on social justice. Sascha blogs regularly at SaschaMeinrath.com.

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