The Universal Service
"Win-Win" Solution

A Time for Grand Collaborations!

by Frank Odasz

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As multiple major governmental and corporate telecommunications infrastructure initiatives move forward there is increasing tension among those who fear the hundreds of locally created community networks will be preempted by the financial muscle of monopolistic interests.

The reality of the situation is that creating autonomously controlled local networks demonstrating the authenticity of widespread purposeful citizen participation can only be achieved through a "Win-Win" ongoing partnership between the builders and the users of our emerging National Information Infrastructure.

The former Congressional Office of Technology Assessment clearly states: "The diversity of applications necessary for a successful NII can only come from the citizens themselves."

Government and corporations can provide the physical infrastructure of wiring and banks of modems as well as financing for community training and technical support centers.

The social info-structure, however, the very heart of any community network, requires genuine citizen participation at many levels. Top-down monopolistic networks without the validation that comes from measurable, purposeful bottom-up participation will become embarrassing 'white elephant' projects.

It is a major cultural shift for citizens to adopt any new communications behavior. Change doesn't come easily. Bringing our existing social structures into the online environment will open many new possibilities for more effective communications, but it will take time for us to become comfortable with both the technology, and conceptualizing these new communications benefits.

The common challenge we're all involved with, from the highest top-down corporate executive, to the lowest blue collar worker, is defining the ongoing process by which we can all find a way to keep up with the best "affordable and appropriate" communications survival tools.

What we're all needing is definition of the process by which we individually get the help we need to continuously learn, experiment with, and evaluate the increasing variety of new communications options. You can't effectively tell someone about the advantages of email. They have to experience these advantages firsthand to understand. And the same is true for each successive level of empowerment:

Grand collaborations

The emerging state of Internet and personal computer technology have the world poised for the emergence of not only widespread community networking, but also for transnational "Grand Collaborations." If AT&T were to join its infrastructure with the International mission of the US Agency for International Development, matched by a training program and research development initiative funded by the Kellogg Foundation, worldwide citizen interest would be instantaneous.

The WWW makes it inevitable that simple entry level self-directed learning programs will allow quasi-literate persons in any culture to simply point and click their way through short learning experiences that will produce near-immediate tangible benefits regarding self-empowerment, familial protection, and community/cultural support such that individuals can quickly learn how to become self-directed lifelong learners. Basic literacy can be taught through web-based instruction on CDROM, preparing learners for Internet navigation.

Universal service Infrastructure *Plus* Infostructure?

Following on the theme of universal phone service, much deliberation is taking place as to what degree of Internet access constitutes "affordable and appropriate" universal service. Ironically, the most powerful of all online capabilities is very nearly the cheapest; Internet email. Offline readers are software programs that allow anyone, anywhere with a computer and modem the ability to send or receive messages, written offline or for reading offline, at a cost of under one cent per page.

This has yet to be recognized as the most powerful ubiquitous communications capability in human history. Functional with web-pages as well, the latest offline readers stay connected only long enough to send and receive essential information, allowing the time consuming, and potentially costly, reading and writing to take place economically offline.

Value vs volume

The value of information most needed by citizens is generally not related to the need for the highest bandwidth. "Human bandwidth" is what is most needed and is not limited to large volumes of data. "Human bandwidth" is the value of the relationship between learner and mentor. The information most people desperately need is generally not volumous, but context sensitive; requiring human assistance to determine what specific information is needed by an individual at a given time.

A logical place to begin

Organization of communications is the key, giving citizens the feeling they have a voice in an understandable and motivating context with as little 'training overhead' as possible. Offline reader disks can be sent in the mail with 'plug and play' instructions, even for very narrow, specific applications.

As flat rate Internet becomes locally available in more and more communities, and as the bandwidth increases due to better hardware and software, cabling and wireless, the multimedia capabilities become potentially more ubiquitous.

Thematic programs might engage citizens in responding via automated email upon receiving a disk in the mail, urged to participate by an email message from the governor.

Another program might involve indigenous youth in environmental protection programs based on connecting remote sensing devices via Internet, or performing monitoring projects worldwide.

Another might unite mothers worldwide around issues of childcare, or link women around women's rights.

Another might unite small business persons globally in creating a small business international trade matching system, which are already emerging in many forms. Similarly, gathering for coordinated dissemination what various countries and communities are doing "that's working" with telecottages, televillages, teleservice centers, and telework centers, would be of great interest to many.

Rallying citizens globally around specific causes, with specific training and action goals is becoming far more feasible than ever before.

The importance of the social info-structure, locally as well as globally, is that it is fundamentally relationship-based, and is inherently a mentoring and encouragement process based on personal trust in another.

A great deal of optimization of current low-bandwidth technologies has yet to take place, particularly in support of the great deal of conceptual preparation for emerging high bandwidth capabilities necessary to prepare people to optimize them once they inevitably become available. It can take years to conceptually and culturally adjust to full potential of email, alone.

Our current culture, despite the best public education system in the world, is basically a preliterate passive video culture yet to recognize its proactive literacy potential made possible by the sheer power of exchanging ideas via writing. Most of us read very little and write much less, if at all.

Words are block sculptures of reality and writing is fundamentally a thinking process. We retain twice as much of what we read compared to what we hear or see. The words of great men and women have endured throughout history. Reading a great book can make images and people live within us in a way more uniquely personal than movies or television, though many of us have never fully experienced this.

We can today automatically search volumes of text for specific phrases, in seconds. The written word has many powerful advantages over video information which are today not well recognized due to our cultural bias toward video and our low literacy levels. Video has many powerful uses, but video communications is not likely to prove more powerful than the written word for a great many purposes.

Citizens minigrants, recognition and showcases

Citizen minigrants programs are needed to reward with recognition those who have used online communications to provide community service; demonstrating how to extend one's limited energies. We need showcases and storytelling on how citizens have been able to find small business contacts via networking and how "real benefits for real people" have been realized!

Many third world cultures will be leapfrogging over the industrial age directly from the agricultural age to the information age. Cultural protection, and entrepreneurship via sharing cultural accomplishments are key issues. Cultural transition in the face of contact with ideas from 'the outside,' pose dramatic risks as well as opportunities.

Ongoing training programs are needed, to teach all citizens how to become self-directed learners, but more importantly to be able to teach others what they've been able to learn. This is what community-building at all levels is fundamentally about.

Testimony by Frank Odasz to the Federal Communications Commission

I'd like to commend the Info-ren folks on their quality organization and moderation of this discussion. This is the best- run electronic public input initiative I've seen.

In about 1867 when the first transatlantic telegraph was installed wonderfully flowery visions of our global human family being joined together were ushered from many a pulpit. Most of these visions have yet to be realized, even with today's technologies. The point is there's a big difference between espousing theoretical benefits and demonstrated practice/realization of specific benefits.

Beyond basic physical connectivity, universal service needs to focus on the social infostructure by which people become aware of the validated, not assumed, benefits of connectivity at all levels.

Effective citizen engagement in lifelong learning and purposeful public problem solving, that improves lives, is a key issue. We need ongoing evaluative metrics to measure what's really happening after connectivity is made available. Caring and connectivity are two related types of bandwidth which must interact with common sense.

The following quote, from another listserv, points to the need for attending to the specifics of each community. IF each community and school's public enjoyed widespread understanding of what's at stake, and what real benefits are possible, I suspect MOST would quickly find local funding to get the job done.

QUOTE from an Australian:
Why can't governments decide on a "minimum level of services" that must be available in every rural community and then stick to it?

The question was asked in the context of ongoing withdrawal of services both government e.g. health and private enterprise e.g. banks) in rural areas?
My immediate reaction was that because of the diversity between individual communities, prescribing a minimum level of services would be impossible and largely inequitable. I believe the services available in any given community should depend on the population demographics, history, local economic conditions and social characteristics pertaining to that community.

Moreover, any attempt to prescribe a minimum level without appropriate consultation and input by local residents is grossly undemocratic and doomed to failure.

NPTN filed with the FCC an interesting suggestion that funding go to those communities who have organized their various constituent institutions around a shared vision for shared connectivity. In their view "community networks" are the proper model; joining schools, libraries, local government, local businesses, healthcare, etc. As a k-100 lifelong learning society all institutions and aspects of communities need to be part of this major societal the fact that sustainability is most attainable through such collaborations.

Case study: In Dillon, Montana, while waiting for our big telco to get around to offering flat rate Internet locally, the local Photomat owner closed the Photomat and opened Blue Moon Technologies to offer unlimited local Internet for $20/month. If he can do it, why can't most communities? Our town of 4,000 now has three local Internet providers.

NOTE: Ken Phillips of in Eugene, Oregon has a sustainable model of a community network offering unlimited local access for $5/month.

What Dillon still lacks in our schools, libraries, businesses and local government, is a vision for what the Internet can mean, and any collaboration to acquire and disseminate Internet expertise and benefits.

We have a majority who don't know what's already available, and who won't attend free demonstrations of Internet benefits. Our majority of citizens are "Will-nots" who frankly don't care about any of it. (Another govt/telco scam at milking profits from gullible citizens.) They literally don't yet see how it can impact their lives in a positive way.

Most of the telcos (and Congresspersons,) discovered Internet within the last two years, yet don't allude to the need for discovery by us all as to the validated benefits and emerging social dynamics of online citizen engagement.

We need a national teleliteracy awareness campaign focused on measuring 'real benefits for real people,' not more hypeway glitz.

Footnote: Many telcos and online businesses consider themselves in direct competition with community networks generated from the bottom-up and plan to replace them with their top-down monopolistic enterprises. Will this trend bring us a society of solo browsers, or a citizenry engaged in purposeful public problem solving and an electronic democracy? The citizens themselves will ultimately decide based on their level of participation.