Knight Blog

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

First steps to Open Gov- getting your ducts in a row

Feb. 13, 2013, 6:33 a.m., Posted by Susan Crawford

The first News Challenge of 2013 will focus on Open Gov and is now open for its Inspiration Phase. To get folks thinking, we asked a handful of people to share their hopes for open government. Below, telecommunications policy expert and professor at Cardozo Law School, Susan Crawford, shares her ideas. 

As city leaders focus on making their administrations more innovative, efficient, transparent, open to outside expertise, and better at service delivery, they're going to need cheaper and continually-higher-capacity, high-speed Internet access. And their communities are going to need the same thing.

At the moment, though, the operations of many U.S. city administrations rely on leased communications services that are extraordinarily expensive and unlikely to be upgraded. Citizens - the same people we're hoping will be engaging with easy-to-understand online public services, self-help tools, and public participation modalities of all kinds - are similarly stuck. They tend to pay higher prices for slower speeds compared to people in many countries, and a lack of wired high-speed Internet access at home is closely tied to socio-economic status, race, and education. For example, just two-thirds of Americans as a whole have access at home (a number that isn't budging), and only one-third of urban African-Americans do. And without a wire very close by, it's very difficult to get citizens the enhanced educational, health, job-searching and job-creation opportunities they need. 

Although it may take quite a while for federal policy to rise to this challenge, U.S. mayors can do a lot to help themselves and their communities right now.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you believe that your community's high-speed Internet access needs in 10 years will be met by the current networks?
  • If not, what is going to cause an upgrade to happen?

Here's a clue: The current highly-concentrated market for wired high-speed Internet access, which is subject neither to competition nor significant oversight, is not driving towards an upgrade - and these market forces don't look like they'll be changing any time soon. For speeds over 25 Mbps, most Americans will have just one choice - their local cable incumbent. Wi-Fi is a great way to share wires, and smartphone access is great for traveling down a highway, but neither is a full substitute for the connectivity provided by a wire. (When's the last time you heard someone say "My Internet access is too fast"?) At least 83% of all smartphone users also have a wired connection, and people relying on smartphone Internet access alone are very likely to be poor or a member of a minority group.

So if you want your community to have the network you will need in 10 years, you should start thinking today about how to organize your assets to have greater negotiating power to accelerate the deployment of a higher-capacity fiber network in your community.

Why fiber? Because smart cities full of sensor networks will need to publish information as well as download it, but cable networks are built to overwhelmingly favor downloads over uploads. Because fiber optics keep getting better and better and you'll get the advantage of those upgrades by merely swapping out electronics. And because fiber is the global standard - the new general purpose network taking the place of the telephone.

What assets need to be organized as cities look to gain power over their communications costs? Access to rights of way and ducts; speeding up permitting processes; the political courage to call for a wholesale fiber ring connecting public buildings and other community anchor institutions; access to low-rate, long-term financing so that a competitive player can build what the city needs; and a requirement that the wholesale player provide reasonably-priced, non-discriminatory commodity service to any and all competitive retail communications vendors.

Modern versions of open government only work if the basic input, connectivity, can be taken for granted. We need electricity to light our homes and offices, and we need  cheap, abundant communications capacity to make open government function. The near-term payoff will be dramatically lower bills paid by local governments; long-term, you'll be empowering every member of your community and your local economy. And isn't that what governments are supposed to do?

Related: "News Challenge launches with an OpenIDEO twist" by Chris Barr, "Back to the future of self-governance: the promise of the Open Gov movement" by Mark Meckler and "The end of the beginning, lessons from open government so far" by Anil Dash