The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Mar 02, 2010

Breakout Report 3: Universal Digital Access: Building the New Public Square - Day 2

Posted by Robertson Adams


Session 2: March 1, 2010

  • Facilitator:  Kim Marcille Romaner, Founder, Possibilities, Inc.
  • Scribe:  Heidi Williamson, VP Communications, Berks County Community Foundation, Reading, PA

Kim Marcille Romaner is working with the Miami-Dade Broadband Coalition to close the digital divide in the county and to improve broadband access in public anchor institutions like libraries and community colleges. In their work, the coalition has discovered that it is disingenuous to rely on broadband penetration studies, which do not show the whole picture because the surveys are done using land-based phone lines.

In partnering with public anchor institutions, the coalition is hoping to improve broadband access available to local residents by providing a broader broadband “pipe” all of the organizations can use, thus lowering the strain on the organization’s budgets.

Once the broadband pipe is in place in a community, public institutions need help getting up to speed so that they know what is possible with the new “fat pipes.” Community foundations can look for ways to expose organizations to best practices in their communities and in other places around the country and the world. Foundations may also want to encourage organizations to tap into the FCC’s goal for universal access, which will be announced formally on March 16. That goal is likely to be to connect 100 million homes at 100 megabits, which is a big leap in bandwidth from where we are now.

The Miami-Dade Broadband Coalition’s approach is aimed at developing a Digital Public Square, which is a place for people to come together, discuss priorities and develop new understanding of the issues that impact their communities. It also serves as a place for people to address and solve problems. A Digital Public Square democratizes the process of community input because opinions are weighted for their own value rather than by who said them. Finally, a Digital Public Square should be completely accessible, with no significant economic or technological barriers for those who want to use it.

To get organizations and communities to think seriously about creating a Digital Public Square and then take action to get started, foundations can identify public and private funding sources that might be available. Foundations can also celebrate any “wins” that take the community closer to having universal access.  Foundations can increase awareness of the issue by reaching out to community groups and describing the project, then generating multimedia stories and posting them online.

After broadband access is in place, community foundations may be challenged to encourage community conversations and engagement. Potential ways to start, continue, or enhance conversations about important community issues include:

Creating a public relations strategy around the conversation you want to start;

Having politicians or civic leaders involved and talking about the project;

Holding public meetings  and listen to what people are saying about it;

Holding community workshops that conclude by asking attendees to become engaged in the project in some way, such as signing up for a committee;

Creating a competition around a public issue and give people a mechanism to provide feedback about the ideas that the competition generates (;

Finding ways for those who will be most affected to become engaged through online discussions rather than relying on set-time public meetings. One resource for this is, a collaborative presentation site;

Expanding a task force’s reach by posting information to a blog and engaging interns in the process of interviewing community members;

Partnering with organizations and people who already have influence in the community.

Another challenge will be ensuring that those who cannot afford or are unable to use the tools to access the Internet don’t get left behind. Options for connectivity include low-cost mobile applications, like cell phones, and computer giveaways coupled with training programs. One way to improve access is to have quality, affordable low-income housing come with broadband and a computer, as if it were a basic utility/need that should be there, just like a furnace (or AC in Miami).

There are potential partners that community leaders can turn to as they work to create a Digital Public Square. These include small ISP-providers, hardware and software manufacturers, who all have a stake in the game (market-creation strategy).

While there are potential partners, a concrete method to sustain Digital Public Square projects has yet to be developed. Promising ideas include treating access as a public utility and implementing a rate-payer concept similar to what electric companies use. Long term sustainability will require driving access into community institutions such as schools.

Community foundations can play a role by convening interested and relevant parties to discuss ways to create Digital Town Squares in their own communities.

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