Our Chance to Build a City Where Everyone has Internet Access

From The Daily News
The Internet for Everyone
By Todd Wolfson of Media Mobilizing Project and Hannah Sassaman of the Digital Justice Coalition

PHILADELPHIA is lining up for a race with a big prize - tens of millions in stimulus money to expand Internet access. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has authorized $7.2 billion for broadband programs, with everything from tricking out community centers with high-speed lines to mapping broadband availability already on the table as fundable programs.

The other day in Erie, Vice President Biden announced the guidelines, and set a 45-day window for the first round of applications, closing Aug. 14. That's especially exciting for us, since only about 50 percent of Philadelphians have daily Internet access and even fewer have access at home.

With all the economic problems the city and the country face, why has the administration prioritized the Internet? As Biden said, these grants are "a first step toward realizing President Obama's vision of a nationwide 21st century communications infrastructure - one that encourages economic growth, enhances America's global competitiveness and helps address many of America's most pressing challenges."

With Internet access, low-income families can access jobs, young people can create media about their lives and neighborhoods, small businesses can innovate and develop, and communities can take greater part in government. Access to broadband communication gives poor people power that they need more than ever.

It's great that we have a chance at money to build a communications system that serves everyone. But the feds are being very careful about how that money gets used. "Service" can't just mean that Verizon will come to your home and install a line for a monthly fee many can't afford. It will mean training, hardware and the leadership to get people online in real ways.

That's why the National Telecommunications and Information Administration is looking hard at the applications. It isn't just big corporations or shiny ideas that will walk away with these dollars - the more community engagement the NTIA sees, the better the chances of getting the cash.

But Philly is ready. Our chief information officer, Allan Frank, deserves credit for leading the most open process in the country when it comes to designing the city's application for broadband stimulus. A series of conversations with community groups and institutional leaders, launched with an all-day meeting on June 23, will lead to an application designed by everyone from high school students to shelter managers and community organizers.

The rest is here:

One of the few times I agreed with the Street Administration...

I was at some Wireless Philly hearing at City Council where then Solicitor Diaz was testifying about what it was going to take to save the project. After some grandstanding speech made by some Council member about how important it was to close the "digital divide," Diaz said something along the lines of:

"Pardon me Councilman but considering our schools do such a terrible job graduating our children, is this really where we want to be spending our scarce tax dollars? Shouldn't we be making sure kids can read before we waste tens of millions of dollars bridging this so-called digital divide?"

As the guy who always says

Philadelphia as a municipal government can't do the heavy lifting that the Federal government can, I have to be consistent here. It was indeed too much to ask city government to put up the money to fix all that was broke with Wireless Philly, but this is a Federal project that will be policed by Federal fiscal oversight. What's the beef, Dewitt?

I'd love the Feds to both invest more in the basics of improving urban schools (smaller class sizes early on, funding for targeted programs to get help the older kids with problems that slow down and hinder learning for the rest later on). I'd also love for them to be responsible for making sure their dollars are well spent. Same with increasing digital access into areas and socio-economic groups where it is sorely lacking. It broadens education horizons, it gives better, cheaper access to employment oportunities and ultimately makes administering traditional government programs much cheaper to operate. Do you realize how much cheaper for government it is when people apply for WIC or SCHIP via the internet, how much each person who does that saves in adminstrative costs?

Getting stimulus dollars out into the real economy ASAP is also a key part of of the Keynesian project to push us out of recession and kick start the economy.

Philly city government I agree would do well to focus on doing the basics much better than it does - schools, public safety, L&I. But stimulus money that delivers innovation to corners of places like Philadelphia where its in short demand strikes me as a good thing - provided they don't just write blank patronage checks to local pols who sometimes have a less then stellar record on follow through and that they can get it to places where unemployment was already double digit, even before this recession.
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

They are the same problem

An estimated eighty percent of students are assigned homework that requires the Internet... and less than half of them have access to complete their homework.

The digital divide is one of the main reasons we have a 50 percent graduation rate from Philly public high schools.

In addition, without adequate internet access (and I don't mean an hour at the library), high school kids can't research colleges, apply for loans, or even federal financial aid. If any of you remember filling out the FAFSA form with a pencil, you can't even do that anymore.

You have to have about 3 hours of uninterrupted Internet access to fill it out, because it's only available online.

And job seekers need internet access, too

About four years ago, after a long fight, we got a new ACME in Mt. Airy and were pleased that 120 new union jobs would be created.

Then we found out that the only way to apply for these jobs is via the internet.

Lines at Lovett Library for the computers were ten and twenty deep.

Working with Councilwoman Miller's office, West Mt. Airy Neighbors worked to make computers available to people so they could apply for these jobs.

This barrier to good jobs still exists for half of our city. And its not just in applying for jobs but in searching for jobs. How would you like to find out about new job openings in your field without the internet?

This is a totally great idea and a no-brainer for all of us to support.

hey so

hey, so i was going to post this earlier but have been swamped. thanks other hannah for posting it!

to underscore the point todd and i were trying to make -- the city is pursuing a policy that's good on both fronts -- 1) it understands that to get it right for internet service this time communities need to shape a plan that works for them and 2) the government will prioritize funding plans that provide measurable, real, new service to communities that don't have it -- connectivity, training, hardware, and beyond.

we need to pay attention to this process and support any direction the city turns that deepens the leadership of community voices -- and if we keep it up we might get millions to provide people with communications they really need.


hannah sassaman
267 970 4007

Equality of Opportunity and the Internet

Posted in an expanded version at http://blog.stier.net/?p=284

I've been thinking about this issue a bit more and want to suggest a thought experiment for people who doubt that the digital divide is one of the critical issues of our time.

Imagine a day without the internet in your life. You can keep your computer. Just imagine not connecting for a day.

How would that affect your work? How far behind would you be at the end of the day because you couldn't send email? or google something or somebody? or access an important piece of information or a document?

How would it affect your play? How much harder would it be to find a movie time? Or to find a good restaurant? Or to book a flight? Or to Or to arrange a date with someone. (Damn right, you'd actually have to get on the phone, wouldn't you?)

How would it affect your political involvement. How much longer would it take you to find out about something outrageous, like black kids being denied access to a swim club? Or to read some commentary about an issue you care about? How much harder would it be to tell others about some problem? Or to organize a response?

Or better yet, maybe to teach ourselves what the internet means in America today, we should all go without it for one day. In doing so, we could bear witness to the barriers faced by those with out access to the net.

This is about as serious an issue I can think of today (Well, after quality affordable health care for all ;)) We believe in equal opportunity in America. There is, quite simply, no equal opportunity for those without continuous, fast, unregulated access to the net. Not having access to the net today, is like not being able to have a phone in 1970 or mail in 1776.

The rise of liberal government coincided with the demand that that mail be cheap and available to everyone. Governments everywhere created "lifeline" phone service so that everyone could have a phone in the 1970s.

A connection to the internet is just that important today.

An Alternative Thought Experiment

Imagine if you couldn't read.

How would that affect your work?

As for Sean's comment above, I seem to recall that Obama promised during his campaign as well as in subsequent discussions about the stimulus $ to spend massive amounts of money to build new schools. Where's that money?

Returning to Stier's comment, I'd posit that Stier's whole thought experiment is a perfect example of a specific sort of cognitive bias - the Availability Heuristic.

In other words, it is precisely the ease with which Stier is able to posit a narrative that deprives him of a day of internet that causes him to overestimate the risk associated with it. Same goes for the reason why we falsely overestimate the risk of dying in a fire or a plane crash. Same goes for explaining why invoking Osama bin Bogeyman was such an effective strategy for the Republicans over the last several years (and remains still to some degree).

Now this would be just an interesting anecdote if we didn't consider the effects of the availability heuristic on our policy choices. By causing us to overestimate certain types of risk, the availability heuristic causes us to make bad policy choices.

Because of our cognitive inability to properly assess risk, we demand excessive amounts of money be spent on things like the "war on terror" or the "digital divide" and neglect mundane yet far riskier problems like childhood literacy.

IMO and as the science of cognitive bias predicts, it is precisely because of the ease Stier is able to conjure up a narrative relating to the risk of losing the internet that causes him and others to overestimate the importance of policies designed to address this risk.

Dewitt- There is a fed pot


There is a fed pot of money for one specific purpose, and has nothing to do with the educational funding we will get.

What exactly would your objection be?

The "risk" of not having internet access is 50%

and it falls on people who are predominantly poor and black.

The risk of dying in a fire is some small fraction of a percent.

The whole notion of risk is inapposite in the case of internet access.The relevant concept is not risk but equality of opportunity.

People without internet access can't take advantage of opportunities available in this country.

People who can't read can't take advantage of opportunities available in this country.

Because the inability to read and the inability to gain access to the net are the result of economic and social inequality, both are unjust in principle and in practice.

Is reading more important than internet access. Sure. But we need to fix both injustices. We can do so. And as others have pointed out, securing money form the Feds to deal with the digital divide is not going to take money from our schools in Philadelphia.

So I don't see any point in your argument.

My point is that it's a

My point is that it's a mistake to fund this policy over policies like early childhood education. And it's also a mistake to assume that choosing to fund this policy doesn't come at the expense of funding for other policies.

If we lived in a world with infinite resources, I'd be fine with funding for bridging the digital divide. But we don't. The decision to fund this policy over other policies like rebuilding our inner city schools or financing early childhood education is a poor decision caused by a specific cognitive bias.

Right now, we do a miserable job preparing our children to live in the 19th Century, let alone the 20th or even the 21st. Perhaps before we start worrying about the grand-sounding 21st Century policies, we should worry about just having our kids read.

And don't try to tell me that someone having a computer and internet access is necessary to teach a kid to read. That just sounds like some propaganda put out by Microsoft et al and the politicians they have bought off to sell computers to school districts.

And it's also a mistake to

And it's also a mistake to assume that choosing to fund this policy doesn't come at the expense of funding for other policies.

And you are backing that up with what evidence?

Also this is Federal Stimulus money

In other words, unlike early childhood education funding - which goes from the feds, through the state (where it gets tied up in the politics of the state budget) and then to the school district (politics again) - this is money that is supposed to travel from the Feds fast straight to street level to stimulate the economy by its very design. Its supposed to be money that goes to projects that build America's educational and economic infrastucture and whether you think the "digital divide" is oversold or not - community-based projects that increase net availability in areas where it is lacking do open up doors to information and job and economic networks for people at a street level in a very real way.

The point of an economic stimulus project is to quickly expend quick short burst of cash on infrastructure items. Infrastructure items are things expand the nations access to commerce and education. Its the background stuff that makes it easy to conduct business both as a consumer and entrepeneur, that opens up paths of social exchange. That why it can be an investment in a bridge connecting one part of a town to another, or a metaphorical informational bridge allowing access to communication and commerce not currently available to a huge chunk of our population. Even if this internet access is not used to apply for college financial aid in Hannah's example, even if it used to say shop for better car insurance rates, that precisely the point. Its about a quick sharp investment in the stuff that give American citizens access to commerce and economic activity widely defined.

Stimulus is not about an overall reform of national education standards, its about getting physical projects set up on the ground quickly to kick in Keynesian multiplier effects.
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

Confused by the Logic


I certainly understand your instincts but think you are missing the forest for the trees. The point regarding new technologies and in specific the Internet is not that it is a good in and of itself, but rather that who does and does not have access to the Web, parallels other social and political problems. Having Internet access alone, a technology detached from other vital parts of our human experience is meaningless, and would render the drive toward solving the digital divide a waste of money or at least as your point goes a tertiary problem The truth however is that the digital divide is actually bound up in many of the other social problems Philadelphia and the region face, and in this regard focusing on solving this problem helps us to focus on economic development, graduation rates, college access rates, language acquisition, employment, and of course civic engagement and political organizing particularly amongst poor and working class communities. And this is heavily backed up by research numbers. When communities have access their is a significantly higher number of employment, graduation and civic engagement.

That said, I agree that solving the digital divide is not the principle problem to face and many of the issues you laid out may be more fundamental, but we can no longer afford to understand literacy rates, or employment rates outside this central communications tools which is playing an increasingly central role in social life. All Philadelphians need the Internet to apply for jobs, apply to college, get vital information about health and their community. They need the Internet to have the full set of rights which come come along with the information based society we increasingly live within.

All that said, much of this discussion is moot. The Feds have determined that building a national broadband network and solving the digital divide is an important question and have offered a pot of money for cities states and organizations to apply for, and it would be daft for Philadelphia to ignore this opportunity and not to go after that money.

Poor people deserve the basics, not the stuff we waste time on

You know I'm teasing, Dewitt, but are you sure you aren't underestimating the degree to which the net has already become a "basic" of economic opportunity in its various forms? I mean its not like I haven't seen you access the internet from your iphone at the drop of a hat or anything.
MrLuigi, my cat, actually only types half as badly as I do.

Education advocates have a point

when they complain -- in general -- about how in the last 15-20 years of American politics, technology fixes under the guise of being basic education fixes have been more popular than simply funding and supplying public education at needed levels.

Who's to say what's "needed"? Advocates will say: plenty of studies.

DeWitt raises the key subject: Early Childhood Education.

Lot of studies state that funding Early Childhood Education is the single best investment we can make to improve education performance in the US. Here are abstracts from some famous ones:





Studies suggest this is true across the economic spectrum, but that it is especially true for at risk City kids.

So I can understand a certain amount of frustration from Education advocates who feel like this very basic fix is again being asked to wait until next year. If DeWitt's complaining about Obama's addressing getting everyone broadband before he addresses getting everyone Early Childhood Education, I'll agree.

In the real world, Obama -- like FDR and LBJ, the last two presidents who significantly improved lives through social investment -- is only going to be able to address and provide solutions for a finite number of problems. We got Social Security under FDR, but not health care. We got Medicare, Medicaid, and the community colleges under LBJ, but not universal health care or preschool. I too wish Obama would have listened to the studies and made supplying all American kids Early Childhood Education one of his first, no-brainer, investments...and that he then invested in reducing class size, raising teachers' salaries/support/accountability, and then made the big policy push to sever forever the segregating ties between Education funding and real estate.

But -- all that said -- while I understand the frustration, I don't think we necessarily always need to play one good investment against another (although legislators often do). I celebrate, rather than complain about, the City's pursuing the broadband stimulus money. In reality, it's there. As I said elsewhere: go get it Mike! I completely agree too that internet access is not only critical to schoolwork, but is critical to pursuing employment. According to the Mayor, if the City's sales tax rise is denied in Harrisburg, and Plan B kicks in, all 49 branch libraries will go down to half days five days a week, with no weekends.

How many unemployed and underemployed Philadelphians will then be excluded from internet access, and thus excluded from finding and applying for most jobs?

if you read malcom gladwells Outliers

he has stats from a study in baltimore that summer education is actually more imprtant to the success of the child than early childhood ed. they broke down achievment in 3 socio economic groups and found that ,at least in baltimore,poor kids learn at the same rate as rich kids during the school year but that the rich kids learn a lot over the summer and the poor kids actually go backwards during that time ,acct for 100% in the performance gap between poor and rich kids.KIPP charter schools where there is a 3 week session over july /august and regular school day goes to 5 have apparently totally eliminated this achievment gap without any bells and whistles.

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