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Broadband for the People: From the Net to the Roots

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As we grow increasingly dependent on the Internet for everything from soup to nuts: employment and educational opportunities, staying in touch with friends and family, and accessing critical news and information, the question of how this essential network operates has never been more important. Does it work in the interests of the people who rely on it? Or does it work more and more in the interests of the large telecom companies who deploy the wires and deliver the bits and bytes?

Broadband for the People, a campaign of the Media Action Grassroots Network, a nationwide coalition of community organizations working together for media change, calls for the full adoption, affordability, and openness of broadband networks. Without these 3 central principals underpinning our communication system, the tremendous power the Internet holds for creativity, economic expansion, civil rights and civic engagement will never be recognized. And the social divides that rack this country with poverty, racism and limited opportunity for many, will carry over, unchanged, into the digital realm - "the digital divide". We didn't get anywhere as a country by vowing to electrify 2/3 of our homes and leave the other 1/3 in the dark. And similarly, we can't settle for anything short of full adoption, full affordability and full openness.

It's a big challenge to get from here to there. For many years, the US has been stuck at about 70% connectivity - with the lagging 30% heavily concentrated in rural communities, poor communities, communities of color and limited English-fluency households. We've also stayed well shy of the top ten countries in the world on most measures of the available speed and reliability of our connections. One can say, without exaggerating, that the performance of our vendors, the large telecom companies that dominate the marketplace, has been firmly mediocre. There's a lot of room for people and neighborhood organizations to take on the challenge of making this situation better for ourselves. Here are some ways we can begin:

-- Share Resources - Multiple technologies exist for allowing groups of people to share connectivity that might be unaffordable to them in solitude. While many large telecoms frown on such arrangements, not all do (including the few hardy independent ISP's that have survived) and in these days of financial distress, we all need to find ways to meet basic needs with dwindling resources. If four families banding together can share expenses, that is four less families in the dark. One example of a local initiative is Oakland's 510pen.

-- Institutionalize Digital Literacy - Libraries and other community centers have been providing "computers" for years - and this has been a valuable service, especially in economically challenged communities. But after years of these programs, a stubborn digital divide remains. It is naïve to expect that the mere provision of a computer converts a non-user to a fully engaged digital citizen.

How to find things online, how to stay safe from cyber-theft and online harassment, understand copyright and digital property rights, fix things when they break, identify reliable and less-reliable sources of information, and locate culturally, geographically and linguistically appropriate content is not always obvious. All of our residents need local and accessible resources to help late adopters come on board to the benefits that Internet access, whether via computer or smart phones, can offer. Broadband for the People is working on a digital literacy toolkit for local organizations to work from in taking on the challenge of working for full digital adoption in their neighborhoods.

-- Fight for Internet Openness and Affordability Like We Mean It - Public policy often seems arcane to people's real-life struggles and nowhere is that more true than in the world of telecommunications policy. Who can even read an FCC Request for Information, much less reply to all 67 pages of it? But there are two important public policy fights that we cannot sit out if we believe that 1/3 in the dark is too many.

The first is to re-organize the Universal Service Fund (most of you will recognize part of it as the "Lifeline" telephone service fee) so it applies to broadband Internet connections as well as telephones.

The second is an open Internet - which means the equal treatment of all kinds of data and all kinds of applications - by pipes that are neutral and do not discriminate. An Internet that redlines is an Internet that cannot deliver the promise of equal opportunity to all. Net neutrality is not negotiable.

So the next time you get a request to sign a petition or go to a hearing, don't just send it to the circular file. We only have one chance for a people's Internet - and the time is now.