“Asheville’s Visionary Past a Good Fit for Google’s Future” Editorial by Wally Bowen

[tweetmeme source="googleavl" only_single=false]Wally Bowen, Executive Director at MAIN, published this editorial in the March 26th Citizen Times:

“Asheville’s Visionary Past a Good Fit for Google’s Future”

Asheville is flush with broadband fever as it compiles creative ideas to compete for Google’s ultra-fast, fiber-to-the-home network.

On Feb. 10, Google announced plans to build one or more “trial” networks to showcase innovative ways people can use the Internet at speeds “100 times faster than what most Americans have access to today.”

While the reasons for Asheville being an ideal site for a Google network are many, what most sets us apart is our commitment to self-help and social justice.

For more than 100 years, organizations like the YMI Cultural Center and the YWCA have kept the city’s torch of social justice burning, even when it was not popular to do so.

Numerous self-help and social justice organizations have made their mark, including the Farmers Federation and the Western North Carolina Development Association. Heirs to this tradition today are so numerous it’s unfair to single out just a few.

Even more to the point are Asheville’s grassroots organizations which work to overcome barriers to access to media and technology for all citizens, including those with disabilities, the poor, the elderly, people of color, and at-risk youth. These groups include Western Alliance, Partners Unlimited, Burton Street Community Center, WNC Media Center, Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN), and ERC Broadband.

Asheville may be the only city in the nation with nonprofit “middle-mile” and “last-mile” networks (ERC and MAIN) dedicated to overcoming barriers to broadband access.

Why should this matter to Google? Google is an advertising company, and universal access ensures the biggest audience for its clients. Google is also visionary and idealistic, as shown in two of its core principles: “You can make money without doing evil” and “The need for information crosses all borders . . . [therefore] our mission is to facilitate access to information for the entire world, and in every language.” “No Internet user left behind” could be Google’s mantra.

In 2008, Google led a coalition of public-interest groups and high-tech firms called the Wireless Innovation Alliance – and launched its own “Free the Airwaves” campaign – to press the Federal Communications Commission for unlicensed use of vacant TV channels by wireless broadband devices. This high-performance spectrum – the so-called “white spaces” – is arguably rural America’s only near-term hope for affordable broadband access.

Google’s fiber network proposal came just five weeks before a new National Broadband Plan was unveiled to meet Congress’s mandate that all Americans have “access to broadband capability.” Two of the plan’s goals are:

• “Every American community should have affordable access to at least 1 gigabit per second broadband service to anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals and government buildings.”

• “At least 100 million U.S. homes should have affordable access to actual download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and actual upload speeds of at least 50 megabits per second.”

Nearly 100 million Americans do not use broadband, while approximately 13 million school-age children have no broadband access at home, the plan notes. Locally, these broadband “have-nots” – and their children — live in Asheville’s public housing and in our rural areas where only dial-up access exists. Last year, the Mars Hill Public Library shut down its free, after-hours Wi-Fi access for public-safety reasons; it created traffic jams at all hours when broadband have-nots converged with their laptops to get in range of the broadband signal.

As the benefits of earlier technologies – electricity, the telephone, radio and TV – became widely known, the American value of “equal opportunity” led to efforts to ensure universal access, the federal plan notes. Without a similar push today, those without broadband access or digital skills will increasingly “live in a separate, analog world, disconnected from the vast opportunities broadband enables.”

The risks of inaction are great, argues the NBP. Income and wealth disparities are at historic levels. With so many lacking broadband access “or the skills to make it matter,” we face the unintended consequence of an Internet that “exacerbates inequality.”

Google knows that providers driven by Wall Street business models – and with little competition – will cherry-pick affluent neighborhoods and use “bundled” service-packages to weed out the less affluent. That’s why it will open its trial networks to multiple providers.

Federal data shows that less than 30 percent of families earning under $15,000 a year have broadband access. For families earning under $25,000 a year, broadband use is only 35 percent. Today’s minimum- wage worker earns $15,080 a year.

Clearly, there is much work to do. Google should note that Asheville shares the goal of “no Internet user left behind.”

Wally Bowen is founder and executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network, which was invited by Google to join the Wireless Innovation Alliance. Bowen was also a spokesperson for Google’s “Free the Airwaves” campaign and “White Spaces Day” on Capitol Hill in 2008.

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One Response to “Asheville’s Visionary Past a Good Fit for Google’s Future” Editorial by Wally Bowen

  1. colleen says:

    Don’t know about you Google but we came to check out Asheville and decided we love it and are moving here.

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