Esme’s keynote for Digital Inclusion Day: it’s all about participation and being visible

This morning at 11:00 I gave the keynote at the Muniwireless Digital Inclusion Day (22 October 2006) in Minneapolis, the official start of our Minneapolis conference. There are about 75 people in attendance. Sascha Meinrath, Catherine Settani and Becca Vargo Daggett helped us put together the agenda and get people from local communities to spend their Sunday with us. Who’s This morning at 11:00 I gave the keynote at the Muniwireless Digital Inclusion Day (22 October 2006) in Minneapolis, the official start of our Minneapolis conference. There are about 75 people in attendance. Sascha Meinrath, Catherine Settani and Becca Vargo Daggett helped us put together the agenda and get people from local communities to spend their Sunday with us. Who’s here? Librarians, community activists, municipal officials, open-source mesh advocates, and service providers. I’d like to thank Intel for sponsoring our DI Day.

(1) What is “Digital Inclusion” and why is it important?

For me, Digital Inclusion means participating, being visible. The Internet allows anyone to post his or her ideas, knowledge and creations through blogs (WordPress, Movable Type, Blogger), YouTube ,MySpace very easily. You can share your knowledge and opinions via Wikipedia, Tripadvisor, Citysearch, Ohmynews and also share your passions and hobbies, for example through Dogster and Catster. And it’s easier to find your content online because of advances in search engine technology.

But to participate, to become visible, you need a computer and a fast broadband connection, and you need some rudimentary skills to post your content. The whole point behind Digital Inclusion is that there are a lot of people who still don’t have computers or access to cheap, fast broadband. That lack of access means being invisible, not participating.

It also means that people who are not participating will never accumulate the skills that are needed for finding a job, getting housing, comparison-shopping online, researching topics.

(2) Where is the divide?

According to a recent EU study, the digital divide in Europe is largely determined by age and place of residence (rural versus urban). Older people are less likely to use computers and the Internet as intensively as young people; people in rural regions who are stuck on dialup do not “participate” as much as those in urban environments. In the US, the digital divide is also to a large extent determined by rural versus urban residence but also by income. So, the price of bandwidth and therefore the price of broadband service and its quality (speed) matters a lot.

(3) Price of broadband

Recently the city of Loma Linda announced that they are building out a FTTH network and will be offering 5, 10 and 15 Mbps service for $30, $50 and $100 respectively. So they’re going through all the trouble of digging up the streets and spending piles of money to deliver what people get from DSL today? That’s absurd. In Rotterdam, they’re going to offer 30 Mbps symmetrical service for 7 EUR per month; in France, commercial provider Iliad/Free is offering 50 Mpbs symmetrical for 30 EUR per month.

I urge you to read Om Malik’s blog post on Loma Linda and the comments (mine among them). I posted a comment saying the prices and bandwidth were pathetic and someone from Loma Linda responded saying they are purposely limiting the speed: “we rate limit the connection into packages to prepare the consumer for the service provider that will be taking over the customer service plans next year. Our pricing is high for the 10 and 15 mbps plans so we do not undercut their ability to server our citizens when they arrive with 250 plus IPTV channels, VOIP phone service and as much internet connection they can handle.”

So instead of guaranteeing that the residents of Loma Linda have cheap, fast broadband connections, the city is more focused on “not competing” with the upcoming service providers and their expensive crappy bandwidth. The city is purposely dumbing down their network!

Whose interest is Loma Linda looking after? Its citizens who pay the taxes and vote; or the private provider?

Loma Linda should be setting a high floor, not a low ceiling. And why should it care if the incumbent operators’ own IPTV service is slow and expensive?

This is an example of how to widen your digital divide, fall further behind other countries in competition, and waste money. Sorry but if you are going to dig and spend megabucks on a FTTH network, you should be starting at 25 Mbps symmetrical and charging less than $50 per month.

The IPTV service providers will give customers a lot of downstream bandwidth, bigger “pipes” so they can shove more crappy TV to us, but they will give us only a tiny bit of upstream bandwidth even though our content may be much better.

It’s important for people here to become active in their city’s plans for wireless and wired networks because there’s such a bias among US municipalities to think FIRST about the interests of the commercial operators (and their low bandwidth, expensive “broadband” service) and not about the interests of the community.

(4) Dangers while working on DI

Because we are all very passionate about our work, there’s a grave danger of becoming “dirigiste”, of imposing our ideas on others even when we can see they’re not working and of trying to control everythere. There’s a temptation to design everything ourselves and shove it down to others because we think we know more. But this is not going to work.

The glorious aspect of the Internet today is that all the cool applications are bottom-up. YouTube, blogs, Wikipedia, allow everyone to post and view content – no giant media company invented these “participatory spaces”.

I think it’s more important to ensure people have basic skills so they can create their own content and participate. It’s important not to direct too much from above.

Comments

  1. Mary Ann Van Cura says

    Price of Broadband: Esme provided these striking statistics above. I’ve added the US dollar conversion in brackets.

    “In Rotterdam, they‚Äôre going to offer 30 Mbps symmetrical service for 7 EUR [$9 USD] per month; in France, commercial provider Iliad/Free is offering 50 Mpbs symmetrical for 30 EUR [$38 USD] per month.”

    Netherlands: less than $9/month for 30 Mbps symmettrical

    France: less than $38 USD/month for 50 Mpbs symmettrical (commercial provider)

    Minneapolis, MN: $45 USD/month for “maximum download speed of 5.0 Mbps” and unadvertised upload speed (commercial provider)

    There’s a digital divide I didn’t expect – The US lags far behind Europe in offering affordable Internet access.

  2. Curious.
    I keep hearing about these incredibly low prices for 30-50 and 100MBps of service in Europe-Fiber.
    1. Are these private companies offering this service or the Incumbents?
    2. Are these firms offering these rates to all customers in the Metro or just in select markets they feel they can make money in? Greenfield etc.
    3. Does the Government/Muni, when opening these markets to competition, require anything of the private sector?
    This is Fiber. Do we have any rates and bandwidth levels offered for Wireless (Mesh and Broadcast) in these Non US markets?

    Jacomo

  3. Yes private companies like Iliad which just went public in France I think. They are trying to deploy in more urban areas although the cheapness of access does not really have anything to do with population density (note northern Sweden and Finland). A report is about to come out which will show that it’s not about population density. And yes the EU comes down much harder than most US states on the issue of using taxpayer money for broadband deployments. It’s very difficult – Amsterdam went through a lot of hoops before they could fund Citynet, the FTTH project and they’re only a shareholder in the company that is deploying (and owning) the network. They have to outsource ALL of the functions – building, maintenance, service provision – to private companies. They can act only as a passive owner. There are very few wireless mesh deployments in Europe because the ETSI power regulations require the nodes to emit less power – so you need to put up more, making the deployments more expensive. But I am seeing more deployments because of changes in technology (equipment, etc. )