'Universal Access' Efforts Go Grassroots

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A new nonprofit group will invest millions in supporting community-based "universal access" to the Internet and digital services.

The Knight Center of Digital Excellence, announced this week, says it will start by investing US$625,000 toward a new wireless network designed to blanket up to 12 square miles of Akron, Ohio. The network is estimated to cost $2.2 million to design and deploy.

The new project comes as many municipal wireless and broadband projects are faltering, for a wide variety of reasons.

Sharing Strategy, Cash

But the center is not just a kind of nonprofit public venture fund. It will also act as an online clearinghouse to collect and share best practices for community-based universal digital access -- the technology, business, political and community organizing strategies and tactics for bringing high-speed network access to municipalities.

Those goals will be achieved by making use of the resources of OneCommunity, formerly known as OneCleveland, a Cleveland-based nonprofit group that applies network technology in support of economic and civic development projects. OneCommunity currently connects about 1,000 community and nonprofit organizations over a regional fiber-optic backbone. The nonprofit will staff and operate the new Knight Center.

Such a structured, centralized repository of extensive 'how-to' information is vitally needed, says Craig Settles, an industry analyst and author who focused on municipal broadband issues. Today, communities exchange information informally at conferences and online sites, he says.

Even more importantly, according to Settles, is the fact the OneCommunity has staff and consultants who can actually talk and work with community project leaders on practical issues like preparing requests-for-proposals, evaluating technology options and so on. "I'm expecting this to be a huge boon, particularly to midsize and smaller municipalities that don't have a lot of technology expertise on staff," says Settles.

'Digital Opportunity' Fund

The Knight Center is being launched with a first-year gift of $4.5 million from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, from the brothers who founded the Knight newspaper empire, to OneCommunity. The foundation has promised up to $25 million over the next five years for the center's work. Of that amount, $10 million will be designated a "Digital Opportunity" fund, intended as a source of challenge grants to the 26 U.S. communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers. The Akron wireless project is the first of these grants.

According to a statement from the two groups, OneCommunity will "implement" the Akron wireless network "in a public-private partnership." It will "leverage" OneCommunity's fiber backbone, according to the joint statement. Akron Mayor Donald Plusquellic has signed a memorandum of understanding with OneCommunity and will recommend to the Akron city council that it approve a five-year commitment of $800,000 toward the wireless network.

Settles approves of the approach OneCommunity takes to community involvement. Many grass-roots wireless projects focus almost entirely on neighborhoods. Meraki's San Francisco experiment supports a neighborhood focus with its own network operations center.

By contrast, OneCommunity defines "community" broadly, according to Settles. It works to persuade a wide array of organizations -- business, government and nonprofits like hospitals and schools as well as neighborhood group -- about the benefits they can realize from a network defined and organized according to community requirements.

This kind of broad-based consensus also opens up new revenue sources for the network's technology infrastructure, so it's not dependent on the city being the sole anchor tenant, according to Settles. "OneCommunity believes, and I've preached the same thing, that cities needlessly restrict their options by believing that only the local government can bring money to the table," he says. "Different constituent partners can bring money or an avenue to money for the network."

Other Methods

But OneCommunity's model is still being proved out. A 2006 case study of the origins and evolution of the predecessor, OneCleveland, by the E-Government Executive Education Project of the John F. Kennedy School of Government, shows the complexities and uncertainties inherent in such a consensus approach, and noted that questions remain about the long-term sustainability of a model that was still driven, at the time of the study, by grant funding and donations.

This story, "'Universal Access' Efforts Go Grassroots" was originally published by Network World.

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