Spring 2003

Common Ground for Alaska, Jamaica, and Rural Idaho
by Frank Odasz
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Youth suicides hit an all-time high this past year in the Yukon-Koyukuk School District. At issue is how to get the word out that there is indeed hope for the youth in the villages as represented by the current Internet access in schools and the future plans for home-based high speed access. I spent six weeks in three district villages (Allakaket, Koyukuk, and Manley) this past fall and winter working to share the message "The Internet represents hope and we need to recognize the opportunities it puts at our fingertips." There have proved to be many social and political barriers.

Just as the famous serum run to Nome years ago saved lives despite great challenges, the immediate urgency is to bring the hope for a self-sufficient future to all remote Alaskan villages. Satellite and wireless technologies can now bring high speed Internet to nearly any point on the globe. Through a unique locally-owned ISP model, McGrath, Alaska is one of the few villages that has succeeded connecting 70% of all homes with 1mb high-speed wireless for $40/month without E-rate limitations prohibiting home access and Ecommerce use.

After seeing limited benefits resulting from this access over the past few years, citizens in McGrath now realize that their level of benefits is tied directly to their learning specific skills for turning access into social and economic value. Education is the key to opening the doors to these new opportunities, both infrastructure and info-structure must be developed simultaneously. The community steering committee has developed a plan of action and an exceptionally articulate Powerpoint presentation detailing their vision. More information about "Transforming Rural Alaska Through Wireless Technology in the Schools and Community," including additional notes about McGrath, can be found in Martin Cary's article in the winter issue of the Community Technology Review.

Typical village home in Allakaket, Alaska

A typical village home in Allakaket, Alaska. No running water, an outhouse, fuel oil heat (the blue tank), a CB antenna on the top of the house, and a satellite dish.

Two days after returning from a three week stretch in Alaskan villages, I arrived in Jamaica for the National Information and Communications Technologies Conference. After the -55F degree temperatures in Allakaket, Alaska, the warmth of Jamaica was most welcome.

I presented a televised keynote and shared the similarities of Alaskan and Jamaican villages in their struggle for cultural sovereignty and economic sustainability. Jamaica's hope is to unleash the inherent creativity of their 2.5 million citizens via E-learning and wireless Internet access. The goal of the conference was to create a measurably effective inclusion model to motivate citizens to get involved with ongoing training programs and to create a revenue model for sustainable telecenters.

The Janitor Proved What's Possible

Shortly after Jamaica, I returned to Montpelier, Idaho, population 2500, to participate in the three-day Bear Lake Technology Fair, sponsored by the Montpelier Ecommerce steering committee and Idaho State University. Montpelier has had 1mb high speed wireless available for several years, yet very few residents pay the $50/month because they don't understand how they might benefit. Shane Johnson is an exception. Retiring as the janitor from the local High School, Shane pursued his baseball hobby and created a successful ecommerce business selling baseball bats.

Shane has become very successful, filling a Fedex van daily with 50-120 packages of bats. Now he's expanding into other sporting goods supplies with several new websites. To raise local awareness about what broadband can offer to all Montpelierians, the local community steering committee is generating an ongoing series of local Internet awareness and training events to generate more local success stories. "Homesteading the Ecommerce Frontier in Montpelier, Idaho" summarizes where they are today.

Building on Proven Successes

Surely, after over ten years of experimental community networking and community technology center projects in the U.S. and Canada, we can identify the most significant lessons we've learned. As different as they may appear, people in Alaska, Jamaica, and Idaho are asking the same key questions.

1. What can we show and do to motivate our people to embrace the potential of the Internet?

2. What specific Internet training has proven to deliver the greatest real benefits in the least amount of time, particularly for low-literacy citizens?

3. Do successful models exist for economically sustainable community technology centers?

We might advise people asking these questions to pay attention to the lessons learned and to review the resources at key sites like those of the Community Technology Centers' Network and the Association for Community Networking.

The Missing Vision and "Call to Action"

As I teach about the potential of the Internet in remote communities, I'm uncomfortable with the prevailing assumption that American mainstream communities enabled with Internet access have embraced the full potential and are basking in enlightened empowerment as a result. Somehow we've lulled ourselves into believing the Internet is NOT a powerful self-directed learning medium with unlimited entrepreneurial potential.

As a nation, we've thus far missed the opportunity for a national "Call to Action" to unleash the historically unprecedented potential of the Internet for online collaboration and knowledge sharing, to come together as communities, and to demonstrate how a shared vision and focused collaboration can produce dramatic positive social and economic value.

But perhaps this is exactly where we find ourselves today, at this time in history where we all need to recognize the obvious, that only by working together can we do what needs to be done. Instead of bowling alone, if we learn to share our knowledge online, we'll all have access to all our knowledge.

The New Gold Rush

It is rapidly being recognized that all global communities and nations are in direct competition to determine the most effective means for unleashing the inherent human potential of their citizens using new, affordable educational information and communications technologies. "Mining raw human potential using free web tools." Those communities and nations that first prove how to unlock this human potential may enjoy a cottage industry for years to come, teaching others how to emulate their success. As Tom Grundner, founder of the early Freenets used to say, "It is just a matter of who and when."

Related Resources

Lone Eagle's Community Networking Clearinghouse

Rural Community Internet Empowerment Resources

Community Internet Empowerment Resources for Indigenous Peoples

Realizing Cultural and Community Sustainability Through Internet Innovations in Alaskan Native Villages

The Community Bootstrap Academy
A summary of community Internet awareness events

Frank Odasz and Lone Eagle Consulting specialize in fast-track Internet training for rural, remote, and indigenous learners. Frank assists communities in dealing with the growing challenges for defining and delivering measurable outcomes regarding the Internet opportunities.

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