Building a New Communications System for America at the Grassroots Level

Look at what the Obama campaign built to communicate with voters. They trained almost 150,000 activists and mobilized 1.5 million volunteers to revolutionize political campaigning in America.
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A vibrant, 21st century community communications ecology requires physical infrastructure, human skills and social tools.

The Washington debate over Internet funding in the economic stimulus package provides a remarkable opportunity to build a 21st century communications system. But if we're serious about making it work, this new communications system must focus on the people and the tools they use to communicate, instead of how fast or large the system is.

How do we build a new communications system of the people, for the people? Look at what the Obama campaign built to communicate with voters. They trained almost 150,000 activists and mobilized 1.5 million volunteers to revolutionize political campaigning in America. Viral organizations turn traditional political organizing on its head. Political parties are focused on finding ways that the members can help the party, developing structures that enable the party leaders to give marching orders to the party faithful. Viral organizations do the opposite. The viral organization serves the members, giving them the tools to self organize, empowering them to do what they think needs to be done to accomplish the overall goal through local, autonomous action. The tools are communications devices and networks, hardware and software that allow the volunteers to find and communicate with like-minded people in their communities.

Communications companies are lobbying for billions of dollars in the stimulus package. But what the new administration should be focused on is how to give people access to the Internet on open local networks managed by cities and counties.

We envision a community-wide fiber network linking all local government buildings, schools, and libraries. The service would be anchored by local government. Non-mobile communications flow over the fiber network. Mobile communications flow over the fiber network to a WIFI/WIMAX wireless network.

The schools and libraries can also be "hot spots" in a WIFI/WIMAX network that would also be available to the community for broadband communications. As a city, county-based network, the service is provided at cost to consumers and the network is operating in a nondiscriminatory manner.

The stimulus package can be used to create a team -- an "E-Corp" -- to train community members in digital communications and digital skills. They can retrain unemployed workers with digital skills to become local tech support. These activities foster the skills for a more competitive work force.

This approach can also address the digital divide that has grown in the past decade. One-third of American households still do not have the Internet at home. Almost half do not have a broadband connection. The biggest problem is the cost of broadband, but there are also skill and attitudinal barriers to adoption. Our community-based initiative addresses all the major obstacles to the adoption of broadband.

All residents of the area served will have access to e-mail, chat and browsing at no charge. Repeaters and hardware are subsidized for low income households. Unserved rural and urban areas receive top priority.

The community network should develop and deploy social networking tools working with members of the community. The implementation of existing social networking tools in the community is based in the schools, local civic organizations and local Chambers of Commerce. Software and training are the activities that need to be funded. Community projects can also produce content and activities that are relevant to and attract the interest of local people.

Funds can flow through four categories of non-profit entities - local governments, cooperatives, non-profit community groups, and public/private partnerships The public entity can fund public private partnerships and local government. Cooperatives can be funded through the Rural Utility Service. Non-profits can be funded by re-instituting the TOPS program and designating new money for these purposes. If spending money quickly is the objective (not a particularly good one), there is no shortage of civic institutions that could be used to disperse the funds; but the ultimate goal should be to create viable and sustainable communications assets.

The raging debate over how to define broadband for purposes of "special" treatment in the tax code is a dead give away that stimulus spending directed at the big communications corporations can easily turn into corporate welfare. The corporations will use the tax breaks to pay dividends, increase executive pay, or fatten the balance sheet. The way to avoid this trap is to direct funds to local governments and community-based organizations.

This is also the ideal moment to redefine what government can and should do for the people. Providing for the basic means of communications -- paving the streets and building the on-ramps for the information superhighway -- are proper local government functions. The big communications corporations can be hired to dig the trenches the way contractors bid on road and bridge projects, but the people should own the networks and should build the basic communications network that all households need. The private sector can still build its gold plated, hundred megabit network, but it will do so only if people are willing to pay for it. City streets and county roads are open to the least expensive compact car and the most expensive Rolls Royce providing access to basic services for all.

Mark Cooper is the Director of Research for the Consumer Federation of America. Gene Kimmelman is the Vice President for International Affairs of the Consumers Union.

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