Category Archives: community informatics

“Digital Britain” – where’s real universal access?

I’ve finally had a chance to read the interim “Digital Britain” report prepared by Simon Carter, the Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting.  The report surveys a vast swathe of issues including copyright, radio spectrum reform, and television.  I was most interested in what it had to say about responsibilities for providing next generation (higher speed, fibre or 4G broadband) access, universal service, and digital inclusion.

Next generation access (NGA) is important because most of Britain’s internet traffic currently runs on copper. Broadband on copper can be slow, and congested. The telecom operators have not invested in fibre in many parts of the country, and that is part of the rationale for spurring investment in NGA.  But the report stays far, far away from any suggestion that rural or deprived areas would benefit:

Competing NGA infrastructures can drive down prices. But they can also drive
availability, particularly as mobile operators seeks to offer users the additional benefits
of mobility at increasingly higher speeds, and make available national offers which
fixed line players have to counter.

If these investments are carried to completion, we can reasonably expect at least half
of the UK population to have access to NGA services and possibly a periphery around
that- perhaps as much as 60 per cent or even more. (p.18)

Hmm, half the population?  As for the actual implementation plans, the report’s Actions mainly concern how to support a market-driven approach.  There is mention of the Community Broadband Network‘s fibre projects, and the creation of an umbrella group to provide technical support to community networks.  This will certainly help community networks get access to technical help, but as lots of research has already shown, there is no “out of the box” recipe for a successful community network.  They often provide benefits beyond connectivity in “market failure” environments.  Ofcom’s Consumer Panel recently published a report describing almost forty community projects aimed at developing local NGA.

So is everyone going to get universal NGA?  Probably not.  The report suggests that there will be a universal service guarantee – but it’s to provide 2.0Mb/second – by 2012.  With all this talk of next-generation networks, that seems a little bit like an advance apology for selling short some parts of the country.  The justification for the 2Mb level is based on British Telecom’s current service level, which leaves 1.75 million people unserved by 2Mb coverage.

All of this suggests a certain level of caution and “letting the market decide.”  But this could mean that Britain doesn’t ultimately capitalize on its potential.  There’s already been lots of criticism of the plan, and I agree that it doesn’t propose clear strategies, instead proposing the creation of “Task Forces” “Agencies” and “Umbrella Bodies.”  The Obama government has made investment in broadband infrastructure a key part of its economic recovery plans.  We should expect a bit more audacity – and forethought – from Carter and the British government.

On Communication as a Right

My US-based colleague Sascha Meinrath recently published an editorial in the Guardian arguing that universal internet connectivity should become part of a new social contract for the United States. He argues that connectivity, like public safety and public space, should be available to all. After all, parks and other public services are freely available to US citizens, and internet infrastructure is equally important.

The comments on the story by British readers were very revealing about the way people think about public services. One commenter noted that parks were not freely accessible, as due to fears of pedophilia single childless adults were interrogated by park staff. Another compared the internet to a shopping mall – since it is primarily commercial, why provide public support?

These comments helped me to situate the UK’s seeming shortage of community broadband projects (I’m still looking for more of them!). I am still surprised to see how many “public” spaces are privatized (including parks that belong to the Royals). Meanwhile, the perceived erosion of basic public services in the UK seems to be making citizens wary of arguing for connectivity as public service, or – by extension – communication as a right.

The right to speak and to express opinions is the foundation of democracy. In an age when network infrastructure supports many of the ways we express these opinions publicly, equal access must be provided to everyone. This does not supercede the importance of clean water, shelter, and health care. It does ensure that we are free to speak, listen, and dissent – publicly.

Tales of the Village Fool

Here in Quebec, a new Christmas film just came out.  Called Babine, it is based on the stories told by a very famous storyteller (yes, this is a culture where traditional storytellers can become big stars).  The stories are a mix of archetypal myths, local legends, and melodrama and are set in a real village, but in a imaginary time.  The main character is the village fool, who is wrongly accused of burning down the village church.  Other characters include the woman who has been pregnant for twenty years, the farmer who raises flies, the Old Priest and the New Priest (the villain).

What I find so interesting about the film and the stories (some of which I have heard) is that they are so clearly ways of imagining an ideal (time-out-of-time) local world.  Quebec has worked very explicity towards greater openness, and twoards promoting immigration.  As in many places, this has created tensions around who is a Quebecer and what Quebec culture means.  But as much as Babine explicitly imagines a settled, French-Catholic interpretation of what is Quebec by focusing on the village and church as opposed to the hunting camp or river (and certainly not to the Algonquin village), it also does some less insidious cultural work.   This kind of story, where grand myths play out in a real local place, helps people re-imagine belonging to somewhere in particular. In a post-modern reality of balancing multiple identities, it provides a simple pre-modern idea of belonging to where you are.  Furthermore, it suggests that great human dramas and inspirations come from those places, and belong to them even as they develop universal themes.

Of course many people don’t want to go and live in villages.  And people who live in villages are also connected to other people in many places, telling stories and making myths and negotiating complexity.  Quebec and Canada are more diverse and urbanized than ever, with all the complexity and promise that that implies.  But as the trope of the network society loses its luster amid financial collapse and postmodern ennui, films and stories like Babine are imagining the local as the place to belong.  We should attend to the promise – and pitfalls – of this cultural turn.

If I thought it didn’t matter what I wrote

Every day, I get up and write. Some days, it is the best activity ever invented. Some days it is like pulling teeth. Most days I wonder why I bother.

Not last week. Last week I went to a public consultation for the Commission d’agglomeration de Montreal sur le developpement economique. They were studying whether to fund an expansion of Ile Sans Fil. In the remarks period, I expressed my support for the plan, as a researcher studying municipal and community wireless.

Then the committee members asked their questions. The mayor of St-Anne-de-Bellevue, on the West Island, started his questions by saying, ‘I don’t know much about these issues. So I asked a friend to recommend me some reading. He sent me an article by Alison Powell and Leslie Regan Shade.”

Then he read the words we wrote, the critical questions we had asked about the sustainability of community wireless networking projects. Sitting in a leather seat in a marble hall, I realized those words had made a difference.

The next day, the mayor of Ste-Anne followed up with me, and we had a long conversation about the role of technology projects in economic development strategies, the expansion of open-source organizational models, and the scalability of wireless networks. At the end of the conversation he thanked me and Leslie for writing the way that we did: clearly, informatively, elegantly.

If I thought it didn’t matter what I wrote, how I wrote . . .I’ve changed my mind. Now, I’m off to bed, because tomorrow, I have to get up and start again.

Reunion Tour

Here I am in a basement conference room, sitting next to Sascha and Dharma. Mike is behind me, and Tracey is over there, sitting next to Gabe from Murmur. And of course, the CRACIN gang is spread around.

(International Community Wireless Networking Expert Mimi Gabor was also glimpsed, briefly. Photographs to follow . . .)

This is billed as the CWIRP workshop, but we think it should be the Reunion Tour. I feel privileged to be part of this great group of colleagues and friends. Sure, we are doing work that we feel is changing the way we think about communications, community, and democracy, but we are also building relationships that make arriving in a strange city feel like coming home.

Let’s sing that song again, one more time . . . .

The tentacles of the CRACIN


After four years the CRACIN project, that multi-tentacled beast of a research project that has employed me, frustrated me, inspired me, guided me, and provided me with the framework for my research with Ile Sans Fil has wrapped up. I said goodbye to many colleagues and friends who I am sure I will see, but whose official connection with me will soon become more tenuous.

A few pieces of sushi, hugs all around, and I am home in my office realizing that this desk, this window, and this pile of files will be my world for the next year or so, as I finish the thesis. Four years ago, I remember the feeling of stepping out of my small world into a much larger one. Suitcase in hand, I travelled to Ottawa to meet a group of academics who have since shaped my approach to collaboration, research (and good food and drink).

The suitcase has travelled many kilometres since then, and so have my thoughts. As I begin to focus them to create a work that bears my own name, the tentacles of the “beast” that was this project remain. The people and practices I encountered over the past four years have shaped and will continue to shape my work. Thank you, to everyone. And now, to write.

Samosas, bags of mackerel, and the Blues

I had a busy weekend. My colleague M woke me up early on Saturday to “go to market” and have breakfast. We did both at once, dashing through the late morning crowds in Fredericton’s market (it opens at 6 am Saturday and closes at 1pm) to find a prime eating spot in the cafe in the centre of the market hall. On our way we passed manufacturers of fur hats, handmade greeting cards, carrots, eggs, meat, and fish. Mackerel, it seems, sells by the bag (I deeply wanted to buy a clear plastic bag of shiny fish, but that would require eating mackerel morning, noon, and night). At the cafe, it seems we inadvertently occupied the habitual seats of the local politicians, who must also get up early to partake in the relatively crowded and vibrant market exchanges. “I see you’re holding court” said one acquaintace, dapper in tam and tartan scarf. But our prime spot for our heart-attack-on-a-plate breakfast, which included a cinnamon roll on top of the usual excesses, gave us lots of opportunity to overhear local mutterings about the “samosa situation”

Last week the managers of the farmer’s market told three vendors that they would have to set up shop outside, instead of inside the market hall. Why? The vendors all sold samosas, a product so successful that people queued up all over the hall, blocking other vendors. This Saturday morning, market visitors were rueful: “my family is gonna complain: no samosas!” “Well, there aren’t many folks here, what with the kerfuffle about the samosas” “that was absolutely the worst decision ever! Why make people a victim of their own success?”

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Preaching and progress: Day 1 of Media Reform Conference

Friday morning, Bill Moyers and Jesse Jackson. Bill, a great investigative journalist, gave the best speech I have ever heard. Perfectly constructed, and using the metaphor of the plantation (bosses in a big house with control of the land, and enslaved workers who know something is wrong but don’t know what to do . . .) to talk about media consolidation and the need for reform so that people can understand what is at stake. Like all good speeches, it took us gently somewhere troubling that we were not expecting to visit, and then returned us, shocked and galvanized, to a place of action.

Next Jesse Jackson, the preacher. We should be rising up, extending coalitions, building out and integrating. We should tell our stories, write our stories. We have a movement, a movement for democracy, against the war, for free and open media.

It was like being in church. Thousands of people sitting listening, then standing and yelling and clapping. It made me think about how preaching — in the American tradition anyway — is not just a form of engagement but a form of media, a way for people to get information contextualized and made relevant to them in their own communities, and in keeping with their own values.

Then I spent the afternoon at the Civil Rights museum, and the discourse of movements was drawn into sharp focus. Black people in the South experienced segregation, lack of employment, disenfranchisement, and real limits on education and life. Cities like Memphis still bear the physical scars: downtowns emptied by “white flight” full of eloquent panhandlers and gorgeous abandoned buildings. It has not yet been forty years since Martin Luther King was assassinated in a building I visited today. The South is still segregated, and people are poorer than ever and deeper in dept. The country is bankrupting itself in war, and depriving its citizens of jobs and health care.

The media is one part of the equation, but only one part. The ecology is complex, and the forces of the mighty well ingrained in so many spheres. I don’t know if we need to call media reform a “movement” — compared to getting women the vote, or ending slavery, it seems a small thing. But put together in the larger picture, it is part of what we need to think about when we think about how to do right with our time on earth: to do the best that we can, with as much energy as we have, for as long as we can.

Alt Telecom Policy: citizens, consumers, and producers

I am at the Alternative Telecom Policy Forum in Ottawa, blogging away next to CuWin’s Sascha Meinrath, and Michael Lenczner.

Early in the morning: Sheila Copps. Wow. Sheila Copps, the former minister of Heritage, calling up our little CRACIN communitiy networking organization for not being bilingual enough (Stephane Couture pointed this out earlier this week — it’s a fair comment).

Sheila Copps, arguing that the public is defined by their status as consumers, not by their status as citizens, arguing that politicians respond to interest groups, who respond just as much to hockey moms as they do to telecom interest groups.

We make decisions based on ideology, not on theories. So the theoretical concept of the citizen does not resonate with politicians, nor with the think tanks who are lobbying for the bees in their bonnets – for example, the Western-based right-wing think tank the Fraser Institute does research to prove that the West – and private industry – is “getting screwed” -in Copps’ words.

So if we are to climb down from our ivory towers and try and get these “citizens” to engage, try to get our governments to make policy that IS based in public goods, how can we frame this? How can we move the perception of both regular people and government officials away from the sense that all issues come down to “how much it costs me”? Important food for thought.

Work – The theory side

Community Wireless Networks and Open-Source Software Development as forms of Civic Engagement?

Thank you to
Steph and Mike for their assistance in producing this. My apologies for not updating this post sooner

Technology development as civic engagement?
Faced with Putnam’s (2000) chilling evocation of a society where mediated relationships have us bowling alone, philosophers of technology and community informatics researchers have explored the potential for online communities and virtual engagement to fill the gap (see Feenberg and Barney, 2004). Yet the ability of ICTs to promote participation in one’s community may come from building, not using them. Community wireless networks use wireless internet technology to create alternative communications infrastructure. In Montreal, the community wireless network Ile Sans Fil (ISF) demonstrates how building this infrastructure also acts as a way to engage groups of people who might otherwise not participate in the civic life of their community. It also provides an opportunity to rethink the parameters of democratic participation.

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