My county (Anne Arundel County, MD) has a 20 gbps I-NET connecting its schools, libraries, and other public buildings. Its PEG/I-NET capital budget is over $16 million for the duration of its current cable franchise contract. Yet the civic uses of this network are, to put it mildly, negligible.
Consider the public schools. There are some 120 public K12 school buildings throughout the County. Almost all are connected to the 20 gbps I-NET backbone, which typically provides service to local school buildings at 2.4 gbps--about a thousand times faster than typical residential broadband.
The initial economic justification for building this network was to save money on telephone bills for the school admnistrative offices. There has never been a compelling educational or civic plan for using the network. (Note that I consider televised county council and school board meetings to be government controlled content, not independent civic content.) The network does provide a wireline link to the teachers' desk in most classrooms. But one place the network is conspicuously lacking is in the school auditoriums.
The school auditoriums, especially the high school auditoriums, are where many community civic events take place, including candidate debates for county councilor, school board member, county executive, and state legislature. They are also where school citizen advisory committee, school board, and civic association meetings occasionally take place.
These auditoriums should be connected to the network. Moreover, the local I-NETs should be integrated into the PEG cable access network, so these civic events can be broadcast on the cable system as well as over the Internet.
To implement this vision, the federally mandated local needs assessment to allocate PEG/I-NET funds should mandate a section on civic uses. The needs assessment should explicitly ask for information about how the I-NET and PEG systems will be integrated for civic purposes and whether library meeting rooms and public school auditoriums will be connected to the I-NET/PEG systems.
In short, the existing local broadband architecture, as developed with I-NET/PEG funds, has often served to discourage local civic uses of the network, despite the fact that the enabling legislation creating these funding mechanisms emphasized their potential to foster local civic life. This creates ludicrous situations, such as exist in Anne Arundel County, MD, where we have a dream broadband network in our public buildings--far better than any average citizen could hope to have--but it has been designed to be unusable for civic purposes.
--J.H. Snider, iSolon.org
(Note: I am cross posting this to education and civic participation because its content overlaps both categories. Please use the civic participation category to post any comments you might have.)