Winter 2004-2005

Community Networking after TOP: Progressive Alliances and a State-by-State Strategy
by Michael Maranda
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The news of one November morning as I began my notes for the CTR wasn't good: the Technology Opportunities Program at the U.S. Department of Commerce — known to one and all as “TOP” — had been cut from the Federal budget. This was fairly surprising to those of us freshly reinvigorated by the optimism and energy at the Rural Telecommunications Congress in Spokane, but perhaps hardly on anyone else's radar. In recent years we've come to expect a call to rally support for this program to keep it in the budget. And after all, why wouldn't we? TOP has long been dear to the Community Networking crowd, funding projects at the crossroads between social and technological innovation, where we in the community networking sector have always stood, ringing our bell.

Is It News That We're Not Newsworthy?

The importance of the humanist impulse in promoting equitable access to technology and of our particular tech-evangelical strain that has seen the dramatic ongoing social change that would result from continued investment are lost on the mass media. It's been said we don't have a constituency. Haven't we been infectious enough with our optimism or the strength of our techno-populist convictions? Clearly not: we settle for what we get, and we continue to get less than we need. We shouldn't fall into the trap of defending our fiefdoms, content that our own program still has funding. Our situation requires an expansive vision and an explicit connection to the deeper traditions of Progressivism.

What Has Been The Impact Of TOP and What Will Be Its Legacy?

Before TOP was defenestrated (as my Canadian friend so aptly put it) AFCN leadership was asking: what can we do for TOP? It's not that we expected a fight this year. More to the point, we realized the historic vulnerability of the program was that its impact and potential hadn't been well understood or articulated. There was already a record of 610 grantees over ten years. They sound official, but these figures aren't the legacy; neither are dollars spent or dollars leveraged. In theory this was always intended as an investment in our digital future and not as triage for the digital divide. TOP was the federally funded R&D wing of our sector. The extent to which our investment will pay dividends to we who stand in the crossroads depends on what we do next.

There is still time to do what we should have been doing all along: learn lessons from the experience and disseminate those lessons widely. This is much more than honoring the memory of a dear friend. We have the opportunity to deepen her legacy and fight for her functional successor. We need to make the case for TOP in a post mortem that sparks the fabled bird from the ashes. This isn't a look-back at past glories of community Information and Communications Technologies (ICT). TOP's impact isn't over if we remain committed to the principle that the money that went out the door wasn't a subsidy but an investment. We've got 610 models to analyze and build upon. Ready to roll up your sleeves?

And this impact has been far deeper than the lessons learned from the funded programs. Seeking a multi-year federal grant with matching funds is a process where one can't help but build relationships and requires an investment of significant resources, and not a little thinking. We'd do as well to study the many nearly-funded programs and the range of partnerships built on hopes of winning this palm d'or. It looks like there's more than enough work to go around.

So, as the program shuts down, can we mobilize a concerted effort to parse these lessons and promote them widely? This would establish the case for a successor to TOP. And there is perhaps something to learn from the TOP experience beyond the achievements of the funded and proposed projects. We should be able to assert our case for a stronger R&D strategy: explicit plans and support for dissemination; conscious preference for projects attempting more holistic solutions to our complex social problems; second stage programs to support the extension and replication of the flagship models here and abroad.

These elements set the stage for the organizer's challenge: what is an ICT policy worth fighting for? We need to get our movement coordinated and on message. George Lakoff's commentary on the state of Progressivism in America hasn't gone unheard.

(Consider Lakoff's recent book Don't Think of an Elephant a primer.) The language of the community technology sector is cumbersome. Outside of our field, who knows what we are talking about? Coordinating our message for the broader purposes of the movement rather than for our organizations will take a lot of work. Are we ready to work together and to invest in articulating an ambitious vision for community ICT? We'd better buy in. This was our investment to begin with, and it is our own legacy to squander or redeem.

This is why we sound our bell. We hope it resonates.

Modeling a Collaborative Open Community ICT Policy Initiative

We don't just see a divide. We see solutions to social problems. The challenges of the day aren't so much technical as they are social and organizational. What is technologically possible boggles the mind. Yet there is something that hasn't been communicated. Innovation for the benefit of community ICT is being restrained, community efforts are being starved. There are two dimensions to this: information access and overload, and the egregious behaviors of a certain breed of “business.”

57 Channels And Nothing's On; 610 Projects And How Many Spin-offs?

We've invested in a fund of knowledge, but not in its dissemination or interpretation. As one Lone Eagle puts it, “How many County Commissioners will dig through more than 600 one-problem one-solution programs?” Where would a community leader begin?

TOP maintains a searchable database – we understand this will be maintained somewhere if not at the Department of Commerce. It's a starting point but there isn't a single repository of knowledge that's easily navigable and functioning as a sustained collaborative community effort . The brain-trust of our field needs to get to work—in a different way. We should create frameworks in which we can work without concern for turf and organizational identity. The AFCN is working closely with our comrades in arms, the Rural Telecommunications Congress (RTC), the Community Development Society , the Community Informatics Research Network, and others to strengthen our relevance at multiple levels of practice.

As we seek to be of greater relevance to local practice it becomes obvious that we need to provide support that extends beyond dissemination of models to comparative policy. Each community is caught in the drama of its own local politics and the waves of hierarchical and tangled jurisdictions (i.e., the drama of political efforts they have little influence upon).

Policy and That Most Peculiar Breed of Business: The ICT Firms

Discourse can get drowned out by the sound of dollars. There's a fight going on. We know the 800 pound gorillas are in our municipalities and legislatures, in the halls of Congress, and in the Courts. We've been suffering in the house of the dysfunctional children of the old Bell system and their Cable cousins. Each state has become a battleground as communities lose longstanding rights. It's not so much a quest for deregulation as it's re-regulation to the advantage of incumbent providers. If we argue against business in the language of business, it appears we lose. However, Mark Cooper offers a compelling case that we can and should take up the language and tradition of commerce and the common law without trepidation (“Open Architecture as Communications Policy”). Commerce involves communication and transport and, when carried on without discrimination, brings development and freedom. Certain clear principles such as common carriage were established through arduous struggle over our history and embodied in the common law and are applicable equally to Rail, Telephony and the Internet.

In addition to the convergence of media technologies, the decades since the dissolution of Ma Bell have seen a concerted and increasingly emboldened effort to undermine these principles. The restoration of our modern birthright requires our advocacy of Progressive Democratic Capitalism as foundational to our liberty; we must strive to clarify for the public good the peculiarities that set ICT firms apart in the field of commerce. The issue of the ICT firms must be dealt with in a historical and comparative context for leaders to have any chance of establishing the policies we hope for.

Let's Take It State-By-State

Back to our local community leader or state policy maker: Where should they go to gain perspective on what works or what has been tried? Even practitioners in our field may not know of significant relevant projects just over the border… any border.

There are resources, to be sure, and many are rather comprehensive and ambitious in scope. Of course, none live up to the fantasy that pervades the minds of researchers and practitioners of every stripe: the up-to-date repository of all knowledge and projects relevant to whatever you happen to be working on. Only in the Internet Age have we come to expect it but remained fairly disappointed.

The challenge is as much one of organizing knowledge work as it is of organizing information. In order to address this need for a repository for shared knowledge in our field and a comparative framework for Community ICT vision, we require a sustained and coordinated effort. This differs substantially from existing efforts, though it is in large measure inspired by them. Among the most respected is the Techpolicybank of The Children's Partnership. And a propos of the TOP discussion, their database remains available. In general, the theme of viewing the states as policy laboratories is gaining prominence. The Alliance for Public Technology provides state-by-state community broadband resources and the Rural Technology Congress conference in Kentucky in the Fall of 2005 will be themed “States as Broadband Laboratories.”

We can build upon these resources and initiatives through an open collaborative framework. With an open framework for coordinating the knowledge-work of our field we can better advance a sound policy and practice agenda for ICT, and we can better sustain the effort. A sourceforge for community ICT policy would tap the energy of the many communities and concerned individuals eager to advance the cause and would get beyond institutional and organizational boundaries and allegiances that hamper the growth of the commons.

We propose an open project to catalogue and compare state level ICT policies and initiatives, and we invite your support in carrying out this enterprise. This project should encompass more than broadband infrastructure deployment policies. We've established a neutral space on the Omidyar Network for discussion outside of the usual institutional boundaries. Check out the State-by-State ICT Policy and Practice Project.

Strong Signal from the Community Wireless Movement

When will issues of right-of-way, easements and spectrum be of concern to a wider community or at least the leadership of the Community ICT sector?

If I've ever seen an assembly of the shock troops of talent in the ICT movement, it was at the National Summit for Community Wireless Networking in Champaign Urbana last August. Wireless Community Networking, Open Mesh Networks, Intelligent Spectrum devices…these aren't just cutting edge technologies, the domain of the alpha geeks. These are social technologies at the leading edge of our fight for progressive democratic capitalism.

And these aren't the alpha geeks of old. They're activist-geeks and they've taken the battle to communities, schools, and libraries. They are fighting in the courts and in the legislatures and in testimony before the great Trade and Communications Commissars in the beltway. They are fighting through community and independent media for local media access and empowerment, developing and disseminating tools and resources along the way. That's what it means to fight for something and not just against something.

How can we support their efforts?


Organizational Update

Join us in welcoming our newly elected AFCN Board members: Dan Etulian, Max Gail, Gareth Shearman, Kevin Tharp, Stelios Valavanis, Antwuan Wallace. They join continuing members: Karen Michaelson, Frank Odasz and Michael Maranda. Special thanks to outgoing Board members Gene Crick, Judith Pepper, Richard Lowenberg, Ann Bishop, and Sally Rawlins who join the recently established Advisory Council along with prior Board members and three leaders of the community ICT field: Andy Carvin, Michael Gurstein, and Sascha Meinrath.



Michael Maranda
Michael Maranda is President of the Association for Community Networking.

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