How can technology help lift our community?

The following comment was posted to Jeff Alworth's item "This is Not My Beautiful Wi-Fi". It's worth a conversation, so we're upgrading to its own thread.

The comment is by Robert Bole, Vice President of One Economy in the Northwest, which works to help low-income families take advantage of technology to enter into the economic mainstream. Previously, he contributed the guest column "Low-Income Families & the Digital Opportunity"

There are a number of benefits that early studies are starting to point to when making [internet] access (and a culture of use) more ubiquitous: academic performance, health care choices, economic value when selecting a product or service, community participation, voting, etc.

However, the one troubling thing about municipal wireless -- like almost any other developed technology -- we are still not sure how it will be truly useful. Is it an engine for economic development? Community participation? Helping connect residents to vital services?

And for that matter, how we can we use this new tool purposefully to help all residents?

...I am wondering what other people's feelings, thoughts or good ideas are out there on how to maximize the benefits for the city.


  • Brian (unverified)

    Simply gaining access to a Wi-Fi connection is not going to translate into rapid results. Think long-term, or place your energy elsewhere.

    Consider a program tied to public schools. As social glue, schools can't be beat -- strong schools, strong community -- you know how that line of thinking goes.

    Greasing communications between parents and teachers can only be good.

    Providing access to curricula, homework assignments, and classroom/learning materials is something that some schools are already doing, and it's a proven value.

    Think of building/encouraging/establishing/underwriting access locations with child care or child-friendly space. Libraries are great, but there isn't a library in every neighborhood, and there aren't that many PCs at each library.

    Cafe au Play is considering one interesting approach -- a family-friendly coffee shop that may have a computer room. This is only one possibility.

    This all would require co-ordination with school systems and with teachers, but it seems like a good start for mutually beneficial action.

  • mlwilde (unverified)

    There is always an element of faith in good infrastructure projects like this. Yes, you can take the conservative route and study feasibility, projected usage, etc, but you'll never make a quantum leap. To a certain degree, infrastructure does drive development - if we build the bandwidth, they will come. On the flip side, incremental infrastructure development is rarely "wrong" in the short term, but it doesn't always end up in the best place in the long term. Witness the growth of the road systems - the more roads you build, the more people drive b/c it's convenient, and then you have to build more roads. Conversely, backward planning from where you want to be may or may not get you there in the end, but at least it takes the long view.

  • gene (unverified)

    it is useful as a preemtive stike against attacks on net neutrality. if information is a democratic right, then it at least establishes a tangible principle to stand up to whatever challenges its existence and its various facets, such as non-cencorship. it should not neccesarilly be an ends or means, exclusively. i think it can be both useful and serve as a benchmark of policy.

  • Eric (unverified)

    It is like a utility. When something becomes of a public use for the vast majority of people (like roads, public transportation, water and sewer, etc.) it is in the collective interest to team up and provide it more efficiently. The internet is starting to enter that territory, and will only continue to grow both in use and necessity. I think it is awesome that the City actually took this one on... I just wish they would have gone with a more reliable (read: proven) company, been a little more serious about implementation, and made it MORE of a public resource by finding a way to reject private ownership of the infrastructure.

  • mlwilde (unverified)

    I like Eric's utility argument, but it's important to remember that it's not true for all utilities. For instance, in Texas (of all places) energy competition has been improved by the PUC's decision to have companies compete at the local level, and to further the competition by posting rates by address on their website. You can literally log in and see who's cheapest for you. Compare that with a poorly run publicly owned utility, and I'd probably choose the competitive model. On the other hand, water and sewer are generally municipally run, and reasonably efficiently so in most cases. It just depends on the utility.

  • politicallogic (unverified)

    I totally agree with Bole's general thesis However, the one troubling thing about (internet technology) -- like almost any other developed technology -- we are still not sure how it will be truly useful.

    However, it is important to point out that his predicate that this is municipal wireless would be false IF he were talking about the PDX MetroFi system. From what he wrote, I think his comments were very intentionally about universal, low or no-cost, wireless internet access.

    The distinction is important but my impression is that it is lost of most of the people who post on this blog because they aren't really even capable of understanding it or why it is important. "miwilde" illustrates the point perfectly with the statement here is always an element of faith in good infrastructure projects like this..

    First, the MetroFi project is not an infrastructure project in the way that concept is used in informal conversation. I would be for a true public infrastructure project because folks with relevant expertise like Robert Bole would have a seat at the table in designing it. The MetroFi deal is a purely commercial venture being subsidized by the people of PDX through a grant of preferential use of public infrastructure for access points, and preferential use of MetroFi as a data services provider.

    I could go on how this is just another example of how the supposed movers and shakers of PDX who think they have the "vision thing" down just plain don't. (The aerial tram is another example that comes to mind.) I can also point out who that same crowd ends up dumping the financial burden for their follies on the working people of the City and region they purport to be concerned about. Instead I think it is more important to point out how now begins the years of bickering to get a private company of hucksters like MetroFi to deliver what the hucksters in PDX behind this scam were not sufficiently competent to put in a contract. The only good thing is this kind of project also shows why the crowd who argues for privatization of everything are also just plain nuts.

    <h2>Enjoy your free wi-fi PDX. You're going to pay a high price for it in real dollars. That price includes lost opportunity costs, $50 buy-in for modems, monopoly rates for City data services, and lost revenue opportunities for small businesses that already were providing free wi-fi as a customer inducement. Not too mention having to watch and listen to all those ads in a city that outlawed billboards as nothing less than the devil's handiwork.</h2>
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