The District’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer has been quite busy over the last few months laying down the backbone of a massive fiber network across the city that’s supposed to extend internet connectivity to people who could never otherwise afford it. The other half of the money from the federal government for that project, though, is supposed to go towards education and outreach—-so that people actually know how to use the tremendous resource that’s coming their way.
That part has been lagging somewhat. The second community broadband summit in October 2010 was six months after the first one, but nothing’s happened since then. And during the changeover in administrations, the last digital inclusion initiative, branded as “i.Am D.C.,” was allowed to lapse.
At last Saturday’s DiscoTech (video highlights here), OCTO folks were tabling for digital inclusion round two, labeled “Connect.DC.” It doesn’t have a website yet, but you should start seeing that logo around the District soon, as the agency re-wraps the truck it used for the i.Am.DC campaign and plans a third community broadband summit for late April.
I’ll take this opportunity to reiterate, though, that the District will hobble its efforts if it doesn’t allow the federal government’s big investment in the Community Access Network (DC-CAN) to reach as many people as possible. Last we checked, they were offering the service at no real discount to the big internet service providers, making it not worth a small business’ while to build out the “last mile” to individual consumers. And still, even those organizations that do pay for the service—-like Bread for the City, an early DC-CAN adopter and DiscoTech organizer—-aren’t able to operate as a free wireless hotspot like they’d hoped, because the routers OCTO provides aren’t “meshable” with others.
When I talked to CTO Rob Mancini, he said that OCTO couldn’t just run around offering free wireless everywhere, both because it could help the terrorists, and because it would irritate Comcast and Verizon, who OCTO thinks will be necessary to build on top of its fiber network:
You wouldn’t want to give rise to a network where there was terrorist activity being conducted that you couldn’t trace. And that is what some of the folks in the terrorist community look for, because their activities can’t be tracked. …
But the other piece is, whose business am I treading on if I bring wifi to certain parts of the city? And if I’m asking the telecom companies to be my partner in the CAN, it would be kind of an insult to ask them to come in and pay for 10 gigabits worth of through-put, only for me to hang ten free wifi hotspots right where they’re putting it.
A true digital inclusion effort needs to get past these fears. I’m pretty sure terrorists will find a way to communicate with each other with or without municipal wireless networks, if they really want to. And Comcast and Verizon will reach into underserved areas as broadband adoption picks up—-which it will, once people realize the value of internet connectivity in the community anchor institutions OCTO has already wired.