Fall 2005

Community Networks: The Future Has Arrived

After a few years' declining support and growth, time are changing for community technology and networking.  Recent events have dramatically demonstrated the need and importance of community-centered telecommunications capability, spurring local technology advocates to think "outside the coffin" and address today's challenges with renewed optimism, energy, and purpose.  Though a "Perfect Community Technology Network" doesn't exist and never will, strong examples are emerging, with lessons to benefit all who share experience and information.

For instance, at TeleCommunity Resource Center (TCRC.net) we're working on new community programs and a highly automated community information system (based primarily on open source technology) at Metropolitan Austin Interactive Network (MAIN.org) to streamline our own services and offer simplified models for other community networks (CNs), especially those with less technology capacity than "geek-intensive" Austin.  But this goal of new resources, new features, and new directions isn't possible for any CN working in isolation.  So we are asking everyone we know for ideas, and sharing our own experiences, good and bad, with anyone who asks.  Here are three current project examples.

Information Sharing:  Telecommunity.US/Crisis Management

www.Telecommunity.US is a national collaborative initiative just launched to help build greater information sharing and awareness among communities using telecommunications for local benefit.  It is simply a cooperative information forum, not another organization competing for publicity and funding. Partner groups during early development include the TeleCommunity Resource Center and Metropolitan Austin Interactive Network, the Association for Community Networking (AFCN), Technology For All, the Texas ISP Association, and SalsaNet.  Other groups are now joining – we hope you'll participate as well.  No obligation beyond sharing ideas and knowledge.

The first Telecommunity.US effort was decided entirely by Mother Nature.  When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit us in Louisiana and Texas, the deplorable state of disaster preparedness and emergency management quickly became obvious.  As hundreds of thousands evacuated hurricane-devastated areas, official plans often lapsed into chaos of poor communication and misdirected (or entirely missing) relief resources.  But due largely to inspiring efforts of community volunteers, a near-calamity was gradually brought under control.  Blunders of government and high-profile charities were balanced by heartening stories of local responders like Houston's Will Reed, whose tireless work has become almost legendary among those of us working on relief projects.

Thus Telecommunity.US was forced to get off the drawing board and go to work.  We hurriedly created a local/regional information and assistance program for communication among relief efforts for Katrina, Rita and future crises.  In the event of a crisis, our mission is to assist with use of Internet information-sharing technology to:

  • provide news, information, and vital resources to identify and obtain support needed by survivors;
  • help keep disaster relief groups and workers aware of all relevant activities, resources, and information;
  • describe clear and effective ways volunteers can help.

In normal times our goals focus on helping communities:

  • view examples and develop local disaster-preparedness/crisis management plans incorporating available resources, relevant services and reliable rapid contact information;
  • create functional, comprehensive local public health, safety and crisis websites;
  • disseminate useful guidelines for family preparedness and emergency procedures and to develop "neighborhood preparedness" crisis programs;
  • create functional, comprehensive model websites for local public health, safety and crisis;
  • build information/assistance collaborations within cities, regions, and beyond.

We invite comments, suggestions, information and help in developing this community-based communications resource for crisis preparation and response.  Other examples are appreciated.

Voices on Policy:  Community Technology Speaks to the FCC

Increasingly, community Internet advocates express concern that current national policy is not bringing information technology access and opportunities to every American.  Affordable choices for broadband and advanced telecommunications services are still not available to people in many parts of the country, especially in rural and less affluent urban areas.  Locally-based Internet companies are being driven out of business by giant corporations using tactics that some claim are unethical, if not illegal.  Important educational and public interest programs are being slashed.  Overall, the current political climate has not been favorable for community technology.

Many of us worry that government telecom policymakers are not receiving an accurate, balanced picture.  We fear they are overly influenced by too much input from dominant telecom providers and too little from consumers and communities who lack the resources to rival heavily funded industry lobbies.  But recent developments can provide another channel Americans can use to make our voices heard by telecom policymakers.

The TeleCommunity Resource Center has been appointed by FCC Chairman Martin as a member organization of the FCC Consumer Advisory Committee.  I have been appointed Chairman of their Working Group on Rural and Underserved Broadband Access. These two appointments offer an important official method for communities to submit our views, desires, and comments on telecom issues affected by policy decisions of the FCC.  Though the FCC may not take the actions requested in our comments, at least they will formally read and review them.

With the assistance and support of the Association for Community Networking and Consumers Union, the TCRC has created a website for public input, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public interest arena for anyone interested in telecommunications, regardless of viewpoint or affiliation.  TCRC is collecting, summarizing, and submitting comments to the FCC Consumer Advisory Committee, Chairman and officials.  Comments will be maintained online for all interested viewers, including public policymakers.  Commenters can specify whether their names are shown or withheld.

These comments can provide the FCC with the widest possible input from all segments of the American public.  But it will only make a difference if enough comments are offered. So we need your ideas and assistance—and your suggestions for improving the site and the services it offers.

Community Stories:  "Write On!" Local Authors Project

Mayor Will Wynn of Austin is strongly committed to literacy, the arts, and broader community understanding.  His goals prompted the newly created "Write On, Austin!" online project to encourage veteran and aspiring writers to submit brief stories on Austin life.  Primary partners are the City of Austin, Austin Public Library, University of Texas Humanities Institute, and MAIN.Noting positive benefits of building local literary strength as well as improving intra-community awareness and involvement, other cities are looking to develop similar projects.  Within days of Austin's September 27 debut, plans began for Write On! San Antonio and others are under discussion.  These local writing projects will be cross-linked, sharing common resources like tools, organizations, and educational opportunities for writers.  As with other project models, TCRC will provide additional details, templates, and assistance to anyone interested.  We appreciate any suggestions for improvement and information about similar projects elsewhere.

Bottom Line

Community technology has renewed opportunity for service and growth.  Among our various project we have experience and information to meet most of the challenges we face.  Using our own tools to share collective knowledge and support each other can make the coming years our best ever.

genepublicity.jpgGene Crick is Executive Director of the TeleCommunity Resource Center, member of the FCC Consumer Advisory Committee, Chair of their Working Group on Rural and Underserved Broadband Access, and past President of the Association for Community Networking.


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