Articles

What Are the Barriers to Digital Inclusion?

This is Part III of a 3-part series on Digital Inclusion perspectives from around the globe.

by / November 20, 2006
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.

Hannah Sassaman, Coordinator of the Prometheus Radio Project, points to "media consolidation, national franchising of digital video services, and bans on municipal communications" as barriers helping to prevent digital inclusion. According to Sassaman, "the watchword should be local determination of local communications policies." Education, outreach, and relevance are also vital. As Richard MacKinnon, President of Austin Wireless, points out, while "systemic exclusion must be addressed, we must also recognize that many people choose not to be included because they do not recognize the benefits nor do they have an immediate need for an electronic solution to their problems."

Time and again, those interviewed for this series pointed out that "nobody benefits" from digital exclusion -- yet, in our society, broadband services are inequitably distributed. According to Ben Scott, Policy Director for Free Press, "a third of the country has no Internet access of any kind, and another third is stuck with dial-up." The longstanding and historic nature of this problem supports the critique that this systemic problem has become institutionalized in our economic and regulatory structures -- "the market is an imperfect mechanism for delivering essential communications services. Providers will naturally gravitate toward business models that maximize return on investment. In monopoly and oligopoly markets, this leads to the systematic exclusion of low-income consumers," states Scott. "Moreover, there is little incentive above the bottom line to spend resources on technology training, equipment distribution, and digital inclusion."

According to Jim Baller, Senior Principal of the Baller Herbst Law Group, the systematic exclusion of certain constituencies are not due to maliciousness, per se, they are the logical outcome of specific economic imperatives, "a profit-maximizing firm has a fiduciary duty to serve the most lucrative possible markets first, and that will inevitably result in some degree of exclusion. Unfortunately, this approach will inevitably leave some segments of our society behind -- unless the public sector steps in with funding or services to close the gaps." Systematic exclusion that negatively impacts society as a whole is a problem we have seen previously in many market sectors -- Baller points to the advent of electricity as an important precursor of today's digital inclusion efforts, "thousands of communities did not obtain electricity until the Roosevelt Administration created the Rural Electrification Administration in 1935."

Nor is this problem limited to the United States, according to John Atkinson, Director of Wireless Ghana, Ghana's telecommunications market sector allows "companies with poor, overpriced services to flourish [because] there are few alternatives." This perspective is mirrored by Matthew Rantanen, Director of Southern California Tribal Technologies, who sees problems in systematic exclusion of Indian population here in the United States, "even with such programs as Universal Service, there are still voids in service with POTS [plain old telephone service] connections to the Indian Reservations in the country. Simple lifeline service is still unavailable to residents on some reservations in Southern California."

Yet, if we all benefit from digital inclusion, as commons-based economic modeling as well as empirical studies like the ones conducted by Dr. Sharon Gillette and others have shown, then we are all suffering negative consequences for the failure to expand digital technologies and connectivity. Catherine Settanni, Founder and Executive Director of the Digital Access Project, underscores the dynamic, "telecommunications companies that set prices for maximum profit, and redline poorer neighborhoods, might think they are benefiting, but what they are really doing is reducing their chances of expanding their own future markets." Likewise, Harold Feld, Senior Vice President of Media Access Project, does not see this as a "market conspiracy" so much as a "market failure...premised on maintaining a traditional business model, market dominance, and cost savings without regard for the social harm thus caused." In addressing the question of why communities should own their own infrastructure, Breitbart recommends that "in addition to thinking of the digital divide between those with computers and those without, we need to think about the great divide between those very few who own the infrastructure and all of the rest of us who don't."

Fundamentally, the failure of the market to provide inclusive services is due to a problematic business reality, what Greg Richardson, Founder and Managing Partner for Civitium, summarizes as "the basic economics of the communications business, where high up-front capital is required, and low ARPU [average revenue per user] may result from low-income, disadvantaged subscribers." Richardson believes that these realities are made worse by "the lack of VC investment into service providers, proprietary technology creating 'artificial scarcity and higher infrastructure prices,' lack of federally-mandated attachment rights for non-regulated services (like Wi-Fi), [and] lack of power resources" in countries and regions with underdeveloped electrical grids.

"Misappropriation and/or management of government funds earmarked for digital inclusion ventures is often a problem," states Atkinson. "Corruption and a lack of knowledge of the technologies are often problems." According to Laird Brown, one of the organizers of the recent AirJaldi Community Wireless Summit in Dharamsala, India, "Rural areas have two things going against them - they're remote and they are thinly populated. It all boils down to distance and dollars. If you're far away with few dollars, then you won't be getting any service from the commercial players." The "problems of priorities" repeatedly came up again and again during interviews. As Arun Mehta, President of the Society for Telecommunications Empowerment, highlights, "it costs less to bring connectivity to all the 600,000 villages in India, than to buy a squadron of modern jet fighters."

Creating the skills to maximize the utility of these networks is often overlooked as well. While many initiatives start with the best of intentions, they often ignore the necessity for skills training as a critical component of the project. Atkinson's experiences in Africa exemplify the problem, "there are countless examples of people from developed countries coming into Ghana and setting up technology resources for aid. In almost every scenario the resources are greatly welcomed. In the long term however, a lack of capacity on the part of the people who are given the resources causes them to fail in maintaining them. Rarely is emphasis placed on building that capacity at the community level." Settanni warns that other oft-overlooked barriers are just as important: "language and literacy levels; content that is accessible and relevant." Long-term, Rantanen feels "there needs to be planning to build a business that supports the infrastructure to continue to upgrade and grow into the future." However, as Michael Maranda, President of the Association for Community Networking, makes explicit, "most of the economic barriers are artificial" -- the problems are more political than technological, and the solutions far more attainable than some people would have us believe.

Who is doing innovative work digital inclusion work around the globe?
The list of innovative and exemplary digital inclusion projects and organizations criss-crosses the country: Boston (MA), the Center for Neighborhood Technology (Chicago), CUWiN (Urbana, IL), Lafayette (LA), Lily Pad Project (Cincinnati, OH), Media Alliance (Oakland, CA), Minneapolis (MN), Prometheus Radio Project (Philadelphia), Tribal Digital Village (San Diego), Urban Dreams (Des Moines, IA), Wireless Harlem, Wireless Philadelphia, and many, many others.
One of the hallmarks of most of these endeavors is that they have filled in and taken over where the "free market" has failed local communities. According to Richardson, "private partners should not be relied on as the sole source of funding and programs for digital inclusion. Local government should also commit funds and resources to at least match those being obtained through guaranteed payments, franchise-like revenue sharing, etc." As an example, the Boston Wireless Task Force final report recommends a fundamental shift in how municipal wireless networks should be run -- mandating local ownership of the network infrastructure by a not-for-profit organization.

"For meaningful digital inclusion to occur, the goal of the network should be universal, affordable access for all members of a community," say Scott. "To reach this goal means more than just building a network infrastructure; it means attaining goals of equipment distribution, technology training, and social services." Richardson parallels Scott's analysis, laying out four points that he sees as fundamental to any successful community broadband initiative: "1) community input and involvement, 2) local government understanding and commitment, 3) a community network as a platform, 4) programs on top of this platform that are real and tangible."

Increasing, however, "silver-bullet" and so-called "tried-and-true" solutions are being marketed to unsuspecting decision-makers. Yet it is still far too early to tell which techniques and strategies will prove to be "the best" over the long-haul. "No practice has been in effect long enough or in enough different settings for us to be able to pronounce it superior to other emerging approaches," states Baller. "At the same time, it is too soon to write off some approaches that did not work as well the first time around as they might work in the future...it is critically important to be diligent and cautious in dealing with unproven claims and claimants and in ensuring that one's interests are protected." Rantanen underscores this point, "best practices are going to vary from community to community -- digital inclusion may mean restructuring priorities or actually starting from scratch to build a grassroots movement to obtain the momentum to build and manage your own infrastructure." As Feld reminds us, "What works in North Lawndale, Chicago may not work in rural communities, and vice versa. A system primarily designed to allow people to participate in educational initiatives may have different 'best practices' than one designed to foster local media."

Though the details may differ, there are several rules of thumb that communities can learn from. Settanni recommends that all digital inclusion initiatives create a Community Technology Agenda and points to the City of Minneapolis's Digital Inclusion work as an exemplar which includes seven components that ensure: 1. everyone is connected and informed; 2. transparent secure systems protect everyone's privacy; 3. technology literacy training is available for all; 4. a 'get on-line' campaign is conducted; 5. the initiative builds economic development through digital access; 6. digital access for civic engagement and accessible government is central; and, 7. local content for engagement and information is created. As Settanni comments, "Wireless community projects, where residents can test drive (free) broadband, and access critical local information (via portals that are designed for and by users) can help introduce the benefits of the Internet to novice users and help jump start a community's participation in larger municipal projects."

The import of digital inclusion efforts is only now beginning to be widely acknowledged. Digital communications is the uber-medium -- it encompasses print, audio, telephony, radio, video, photography, etc. along with web-surfing, social networking, e-mail and countless other uses. "Communications and technology are infused into every aspect of our society," Maranda emphasizes. If we value participatory democracy, then it makes sense that communities should be involved with, help shape, and active run data communications networks. "Any tech plan involving a vendor has to have a meaningful, substantive return to the community," recommends Maranda. "Every level of government should take a look at how they make use of technology and what sort of expenditures they are making. They should engage local leaders of our movement as they develop plans and not leave it to private sector consultants nor salespersons or lobbyists of the industry giants."

Along with increasing competition in the broadband market, community and municipal broadband initiatives have fundamentally different goals than private enterprises. "Our policies should facilitate community broadband networks that focus on public service priorities. We should build and open public network infrastructure to ensure the information superhighway is open to all users," states Scott. Accordingly, Scott recommends that, "we should maintain network neutrality. We should open the public airwaves to unlicensed, public applications in wireless broadband. And we should integrate digital inclusion programs."

"All too often we separate the economic development potential of investing in broadband without thinking about the concomitant need of investment in human and social capital," Maranda concludes. At this critical juncture in the development of a global digital civilization, the stakes have never been higher or the possibilities grander.

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This article is part of a three-part series on digital inclusion. Bellsouth and Comcast declined comment for this series. Repeated e-mails and phone calls seeking comment were not returned by Earthlink, Insight, Qwest, and Verizon. AT&T responded only that it "is committed to making affordable broadband service available to as many homes and businesses as possible. We believe the best policy is to stimulate private investment in broadband."

Sascha Meinrath is a regular contributer to Digital Communities and the Founder and Executive Director of CUWiN.net. Sascha is the Vice President 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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