Pierre Clark
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Terry  Grunwald
Cary Williams
Lauren-Glenn Davitian
Seongcheol Kim
Dirk Koning
Sue Buske
Autumn Labbe-Renault
Pierre Clark
Fred I. Williams
Kara Harris

The Chicago Neighborhood Technology Access Council Policy Statement  

Comments and questions can be addressed to Pierre A. Clark, Managing Director, NeighborTech, Inc., 601 South LaSalle, 6th Floor, Suite C-818, Chicago, IL 60605, 1-888-336-9864. The full document can be found at www.iit.edu/~nnet/compolicy.html. The document acknowledges the contributions and support of the Benton Foundation and Kevin Taglang (now with the Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago); Nancy Jackson, Prologue Alternative High School; Carl Davidson of Networking For Democracy; and numerous staff and colleages with CTCNet, DePaul University Egan Center, and the Loyola University Policy Research Action Group.

Pierre Clark


The discussion of community technology access issues has grown in breadth and, in the minds of an increasing number of people, importance in the past five years. In this debate, which resonates from the halls of Congress to the corridors of public libraries and schools across America, low-income people have determined that they must establish their stake in the community technology access debate.

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Pierre Clark (left) at staff retreat with CTCNet Administrator Steve Ronan and CTCNet New England Coordinator Debby Snow.
It is becoming increasingly evident, say these residents, that the issues surrounding community technology access are critical to sustainable communities and economic self-sufficiency.

If you study newspapers and magazine articles over the past four years, it's clear that technology access as a public policy, cultural, and economic development issue has become of greater public interest. The many factors that have stimulated this heightened interest -- the application of technology in information management and strategic planning undergirding the longest economic boom in human history, the obliteration, transformation and establishment of entire new industries driven and managed by technology tools, the emergence of the Internet as an information transport medium, and the approach of the new millennium have all influenced a public just now recognizing how much of an impact technology is having in reinventing society and culture itself.

As with any resource development phenomenon, issues of equity are being raised. Will all citizens have access to the tools and knowledge of the new technologies? Or will these resources be allocated and available according to income, education, or ability to use and manipulate them?

Technology has emerged from the back rooms of gee-whiz rocket science applications into the mainstream because for the first time in history -- in this transitional period when new technologies are created, destroyed, reinvented, reinterpreted and redeployed -- we can see the impact of technology-based tools on how we work, how we live, whom we are connected to, how we manage information, and how we perceive society.

In the last decade, there has emerged a "wired" culture, a group of power players who are connected worldwide to the centers of commerce, education, planning, and communication via the Internet and other technology-driven tools. These people -- who are traditionally the educational, economic and cultural elite -- deal and communicate with each other worldwide and are making the choices that impact others. It's expected now that people will bank, file their taxes, do their research, transmit and interpret information via online resources.

Studies by MCI, the Department of Commerce, the Benton Foundation, Vanderbilt University, MIT and other scholarly and governmental institutions have shown that residents of low-income communities are disconnected from this world and the transactions made in them because they don't have access to the tools and the knowledge of how to use them. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich's fear of a two-tiered society of technology masters and technology illiterates is coming to reality if these studies are accurate.

How Residents Interpret Community Technology Access

In the days before the Internet, universal access meant having a telephone. (In fact, according to Ellis Jacobs of the Ohio Telecommunications Alliance, about 20% of low-income residents don't have a phone or can't afford minimal telephone features.)

Now access has taken on an entirely new definition: access not only to the Internet, but to a pager, cellular phone, voice mail, and computer. It can reasonably be inferred that if one does not have access to all of these technology tools, then one might just be out of the "loop" in today's information-driven society.

Technology advances used to occur gradually over a period of years; now new technologies become obsolescent and reborn/redeveloped within months. The introduction of new technologies continually raises the bar on what people see as minimally acceptable technology: for example, ten years ago a text-based interface was state of the art, but now few customers would buy a computer that did not feature multi-media with voice, data, sound, and graphics. So as technology advances raise the bar of expectations on what is considered minimally acceptable as "technology" access, this also changes the value bar of technology access. There are two questions: What level of technology is acceptable as "community technology access"? What level of technology is acceptable to achieve "universal technology access"?

Communities that are seen as low-income and underserved are particularly sensitive to these kinds of discussions because they perceive, and rightly so, we think, that technology developers create technology as market driven assets. Because technology is most often positioned as a marketable product offered at various levels of affordability, residents are concerned as to whether they can afford those costs.

Whether technology access is in fact a property right is really a public policy issue, but we know residents in low-income areas generally feel that access to technology should not be determined by income levels, but by how important this access is to being a functioning citizen in society.

They have begun to see their access to technology as a civil right. That means the focus should be on the levels of acceptable technology access and how to deliver technology to those who are unable to pay for that.

Whose responsibility is it to support universal access?

How universal access will be paid for is the crux of the debate surrounding the enactment of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Most observers agree that guaranteeing universal access means that at least some segments of society will need to be subsidized in order to receive access. The act mandates the creation of a universal fund to support discounted telecommunications services for schools and libraries; significantly, support for non-profit and community-based organizations was excluded. This omission becomes an issue for residents and community-based organizations because there are many more non-profit organizations than schools and libraries.

Technology Access As A Public and Civil Right

There are some resources that are seen as fundamental to citizens and therefore as a matter of public policy provided as a public right. Public education, for example, is seen as a fundamental right of citizens because it is in the national interest for all citizens to receive minimal levels of knowledge and achieve minimal levels of educational efficiency. Similarly, public transportation and public protection (through the military and national guard) were provided as similar resources.

Some policymakers argue that technology access should have this same status. In the context of citizens rights, community technology access is being framed as one of these fundamental rights.

Part Three: Recommendations

Following are some draft recommendations for implementation strategies for community technology access which have been developed from conversations with community residents and staff of community-based agencies.

1. Universal access should be declared a public right.

2. Technology education should be required in schools.

3. Technology training should be connected to school-to-work initiatives.

4. School and CBO-based community computing centers should be established.

5. Libraries should develop subsidized community computing centers.

6. Subsidized technology training should be available to low-income residents.

7. A goal of a 1 to 4 computer-resident ratio should be established in low-income communities.

8. Residents should organize and support their own community access and training networks that focus on low-income residents.

9. Connectivity between agencies, residents and neighborhoods should be a basic part of city services provided to all residents.


This is a shortened and edited version of the in-process policy statement of the Neighborhood Technology Access Council, a Chicago-based advocacy and policy group in formation for more than two years. It is intended to be a draft working document that stimulates discussion, defines some issues, and codifies some suggestions about how community residents view the issue of community technology access and how they would like to see access to technology expanded in their own communities.