Universal broadband access is critical to civic participation where the public square will be online.
That was the message from panelists at the FCC's first in a series of public workshops on broadband deployment. A subtext of that message that could be troubling to incumbent networks is that price and speed/bandwidth of that broadband access were billed as key elements in that full civic participation.
The workshop itself was an exercise in the electronic town square, with an onsite audience supplemented by another 175 or so online, including more than a dozen via Second Life, according to an FCC staffer.
Norm Ornstein, of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and a veteran campaign finance reformer, said the 2008 Obama campaign showed there was hope for his push for a more broad based campaign finance system where voice is given, and dollars collected, from lots of individual donors rather than a few wealthy corporations.
But he said for that model to work, those individuals have to be able to access the electronic tools, which means the Internet.
With the ability to both communicate and contribute on the Web, a model that helped fund and power the successful Obama presidential campaign, he said the door has been opened to a model of lots of small donors boosted by "robust" matching funds or tax credits to help grow the pool, something of a long-tail of campaign finance, though he did not co-opt that phrase.
But he said that is possible "only if everyone has access to the system."
Andrew Rasiej, of the personal Democracy Forum, suggested that price could be one of the inhibitors to access.
He talked about the rise of YouTube as a campaign tool, not just for the thousands of approved campaign videos posted there, but for the 1.3 billion views to election-related videos--the Obama Girls, for example--from independent of the parties and campaigns.
That, he said, was the new water cooler/back fence/dining table conversation "on steroids."
But at $700 a year for access, he said, a large segment of the working class population is being denied that forum.
To the critics who argue that the job of keeping tabs on the government should fall to traditional journalists, he pointed out that the New York Times Metro Section, once 30 pages, had been scrapped, with only a few pages of local coverage left in the paper. He said the journalistic oversight effort was falling to a new generation of bloggers and online news sites.
Rasiej said it was time to redefine the term public from available in some government filing cabinet to machine-readable, searchable and accessible online. Panelist John Wonderlich of the Sunlight Foundation, added "in real time" to that definition.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has already expressed his desire to get more of the FCC's files off of dead-tree status and onto the 'net where the public can get better access to them.
Rasiej pointed out that virtually every Fortune 500 company now had a 24/7 network with which it was communicating with employees and customers, suggesting that "if you buy a Sony digital camera case in leather and press click, the cow knows." He said the education system needed to catch up. When talking about connecting schools, he said, it would be well to remember that schools are only open about 15% of that 24/7 window of opportunity. Imagine connecting students and teachers and community leaders with a similar 24/7 network, he said.
Ellen Goodman, law professor at Rutgers, who focused on the educational opportunities for public media like PBS and NPR, suggested access to broadband included the ability to take advantage of opportunities that required lots of bandwidth.
She said that just as noncommercial media in the 1960's was predicated on universal access to broadband, today's public media is predicated on universal broadband. But she also pointed to the need for speed as well as a connection.
She said that for students to conference with NASA experts with "jitter-free HD" would require 100 mbps, while connecting multiple classrooms to NOVA or Frontline would require nearly a gigabit.
While there was no talk of cloud computing, Rasiej took his view of online civic participation to several thousand feet for a macro perspective.
Rasiej, who evidenced his disdain for politicians who "didn't know a server from a waiter," talked about the use of Twitter in Iran to work around government restrictions on information flow. He said he could predict, "with some certainty," that borders and nation states would start to be thought of differently, primarily as the places "where we keep guns and soldiers," while citizens empowered by the net would be doing person-to-person diplomacy, "from P to P to G," the "G" being government.
The FCC has 18 broadband workshops scheduled over the next four weeks or so. The next will be an all-day affair on deployment scheduled for Aug. 12.