Creating a Digital Community

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San Francisco has an important opportunity to harness the benefits of wireless technology to improve the lives of its residents and businesses. By approving the proposed Wi-Fi contract with EarthLink and Google, the Board of Supervisors can bring anytime, anywhere communications to all San Franciscans and transform our city into a one of a kind Digital Community. What makes the Wi-Fi project all the more exciting is that it can be accomplished at no cost to taxpayers and without sacrificing City governance and operational controls. The Wi-Fi network, in combination with creative digital inclusion programs, will help the city meet important community goals.

A Digital Community

First and foremost, the Wi-Fi project will enable the city to offer free and affordable Internet access to all residents and businesses. Extending this technology to the underserved, who are more likely to be people of color, have low incomes and limited English speaking ability, is especially important. In many ways, the Digital Divide is merely a reflection of other underlying social inequalities. But it also has its own unique dynamics and consequences. As more and more of our daily routines are being conducted on the Internet, those off-line are not only unable to send emails to family and friends, surf the Net or seek entertainment, they are also excluded from opportunities to find a job, access important services and join the ranks of other media makers who are shaping the social, cultural and political future of our society. The project’s ability to support the city’s educational system may be one of the greatest long-term benefits to the people of San Francisco and the collective health of our city.

Simply creating a Wi-Fi network alone will not create a Digital Community. Beyond broadband access, underserved residents face other barriers to technology adoption: lack of computers, software, and technology skills. To close the Digital Divide and ensure that everyone has the chance to participate in the opportunities that are emerging in a networked society, we also need programs to address these barriers. The City recognizes this and so do EarthLink and Google. With help from a broadly based community task force, the City has created a comprehensive Digital Inclusion Strategy, which includes neighborhood programs for the following:

1. Computer ownership and basic training—to increase home access to computers;

2. Enhanced digital Literacy—that enrich users’ experiences and enable them to move from novice to expert, and for some to become digital innovators and professionals;

3. Relevant On-Line Services—such as multi-lingual web portals, neighborhood web sites, and content development training;

The City will work collaboratively with community-based organizations, schools, businesses and social service agencies to implement these programs. EarthLink and Google will provide the on-going financial support needed to ensure their success.

An Innovation Platform

The Wi-Fi project will support innovation and business development, enabling private sector and social entrepreneurs to develop new mobile Internet applications and wireless devices. In the past decade, we have witnessed the evolution of the Internet from a set of tools to access and process information to a converged digital platform that fosters content creation, interactivity, and social networking. The Wi-Fi project offers ubiquity and mobility—powerful attributes that will drive additional advances and experimentation.  By creating an “innovations common” to serve as a resource for innovators from all walks of life, the city can continue to catalyze the nation’s creative and economic potential.

The Wi-Fi project will also extend the benefits of the Internet to small businesses. Just as their larger business counterparts have been doing for years, San Francisco’s small businesses will be able to use the power of the Internet to improve customer service, enhance productivity, and increase their bottom lines.

Improving City Services

Local governments are constantly challenged to accomplish more with fewer resources. The Wi-Fi project offers a tremendous tool for improving the delivery of public services, especially in public safety applications. Consider, for example, the time saved if police officers can access centralized police information databases from the field rather than returning to the office. Less time in the office translates to more time on the streets where their presence is critical. Other mobile public workers—firefighters, inspectors and social service workers—can also benefit by being able to access centralized information remotely and to communicate in times of emergency.

More and more city services can be offered online. But often the people who need city services the most do not have the tools—Internet access and computers. Imagine their frustration when they’re told to file police reports on-line, use an on-line application process for city job openings, or make an on-line appointment at the motor vehicles department. For a low-wage earner on an hourly rate, the time wasted in lines at City Offices is all the more painful, at least economically. With the Wi-Fi project, the city can equitably offer new e-government programs that make it easier for everyone to learn about and access city services. It will let those who are “in line” get “online” instead.

The public private partnership between the City and EarthLink and Google is a key to the project’s success. The partnership leverages the ability of each entity to focus on its core strengths. EarthLink and Google are better equipped to keep up with the rapid technological changes occurring with wireless technologies, to monitor marketplace developments and to operate networks. The City, in turn, better understands public service delivery, digital inclusion programs, and the importance of strong and effective governance.

It just makes sense to invest in the people in our community, to support innovation and to improve the delivery of public services. And to do this in a way that maximizes our chance of success and minimizes our financial risk and exposure. The Mayor and the community have worked together to create a project to achieve these goals. It is time for the Board of Supervisors to approve the contract with EarthLink and Google and allow free Wi-Fi to move forward.

By Elaine Carpenter and Laura Efurd

Elaine Carpenter is a policy and communications consultant who is working to expand technology opportunities in California. She has more than twenty-five years of experience in communications policy and has served as Chief of Staff at the United States Telecom Association and as VP of Communications and Public Policy for a mid-sized telecom company.

Laura Efurd is the Chief Community Investment Officer at the Community Technology Foundation of California. Previously, she served as Deputy Director of the White House Office of Public Liaison in the Clinton Administration. She also has more than a decade of policy experience in the U.S. Congress.

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