Yesterday I attended the Public Oversight Roundtable for the Washington, DC Committee on Government Operations and The Environment (public notice here). DC Councilmember Mary Cheh, who is responsible for the public oversight of the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO), chaired the roundtable. Video of the roundtable can be found here; my testimony is from the 1:30:00 minute followed by questions from Chairwoman Cheh. (The video requires Microsoft codecs; if you do not use Explorer, I recommend streaming the link through VLC Player.)
The roundtable offered a forum for public testimony regarding DC-Net, a municipal fiber network administered by OCTO. Last year, DC-Net was authorized to provide services to, among other entities, "providers who wish to contract with DC-Net to provide services to D.C. Public Schools, District public charter schools, District Public Libraries, or open-access public networks which can provide internet services to under-served District populations and neighborhoods." The people's taxes were once again authorized to form a possible contractual give-away to ISPs with no interest in digital justice. To help inform the Councilwoman on how to achieve DC's broadband adoption goals without pouring tax dollars into Verizon's coffers, the Open Technology Initiative provided documents on open mesh network topology and a policy study titled "Rise of the Intranet Era." Today I added to the public record on the meeting a freshly released policy paper from OTI and the Media Policy Initiative, "From the Digital Divide to Digital Excellence."
Two speaker panels of four speakers each provided testimony at the roundtable, including a representative from Cisco, an advisor on public sector telecommunications, a DC Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner speaking on behalf of his neighborhood, and a representative of the University of the District of Columbia. Whether they offered supportive ways forward for DC-Net to expand to residences or expressed dismay at the prospect of DC-Net offering no solid alternative to incumbent ISPs, one thing united the testimony of each of the eight scheduled speakers: all of them focused on wireline solutions to broadband adoption. None of them offered consideration of wireless broadband as a way to fill in the gaps of adoption, and they all spoke of residents and institutions as parties to a contract with ISPs. The amount of money discussed to fulfill DC-Net's purpose was in the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars.
When Councilmember Cheh invited members of the public to provide testimony, three people came to the table; other than myself, that included a representative from the Bloomingdale Broadband Bridge community wireless project. I emphasized the importance of working with the community, rather than taking a monolithic approach, to narrowing the digital divide. Drawing on OTI's previous work in several American cities and correspondence with community wireless projects across the globe, I described the technical and social implementation of mesh wireless networks, especially how their scalability, ability to use free open source firmware, and low cost of implementation can easily put a robust mesh wireless cloud over a neighborhood. I told Councilmember Cheh that neither wireless nor wireline can be the only solution, and neither can the government simply hand out nodes and cross their fingers. Getting the community to take over development of their own communications networks is the best way to find the right mix of methods to bring broadband access to all.
Councilmember Cheh certainly seemed impressed and interested in my testimony and that of the Broadband Bridge project. The next step is making sure that the citizen's resource, DC-Net, and DC OCTO are open to helping community projects like Broadband Bridge to bridge the digital divide in a flexible and supportive way.