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<nettime> Connecting All Americans, a critical report from a U.S. conference

Conference Report: Connecting All Americans
Washington, DC, February 24-46, 1998
By Steve Cisler, Association For Community Networking
March 2, 1998

Copyright Steve Cisler 1998 .This report may not be archived, mirrored,
stored, or republished on any commercial server or service without the
permission of the author.

60 speeches and presentations
21 business cards
15 lbs (~7 kilos) of handouts, speeches, newsletters, directories, press
14 jumbo prawns
6 glasses of chilled orange, cranberry, and apple juice
4 glasses of Harmony red wine
3 sit down lunches and dinners
1 pop-up 3D desktop calendar from Public Utility Law Project
1 3-ring binder with print outs of presentations and marketing literature
1 break-out session for discussion
1 directory of 500+ attendees
No mousepads. t-shirts, or other giveaways
A few good ideas and a few good stories

These are some of the measurables of my attending the Connecting All
Americans: Telecommunications: Links in Low Income & Rural Communities
conference held in Washington, DC, Feb 24-26, 1998. It was sponsored by the
Public Utility Law Project (PULP) of New York and the National
Telecommunications Administration (Dept. of Commerce). It coincided or
overlapped with other telecomms conferences on "Smart" communities, school
networking, and the Alliance for Public Technology. People moved between the
meetings, but I stayed at this one and the one day post-conference workshop,
"Building Community Networks" held on Feb. 27.

Given the high quality of the food and support at the Marriott, it had to be
heavily subsidized by various sponsors (ATT, Bell Atlantic, BellSouth,
Cisco, MCI, Microsoft, V Tel, WinStar, and Washington Intl. Teleport),
because the modest registration fee surely did not cover the costs. There
was even a lot of booze and plates-o-shrimp left over after the lavish
opening reception on Tuesday night. While Bob Pillar of PULP was the main
planner, Larry Irving, the head of NTIA, was the conference griot. Griots
are West African entertainers, historians, and story tellers. At a meeting
or social event they sing the praises of the family or the guests and make
everyone feel important and welcome. This is an important ritual in Senegal,
as it is in Washington, DC, where public stroking and oaths of fealty are
part of the formula to gain support to get rural folks and the poor online.
Although funding for TIIAP has shrunk, it is still an important program that
brings together many kinds of grass roots efforts in a way that other
programs from Education, NSF, Health, Agriculture do not.

What was the premise of the whole event? There are barriers to getting rural
areas online, as well as different groups that vary by ethnicity and income,
but there are policies that can be enacted, and individual projects that
need to be publicized to inspire others to replicate them. Many speakers
repeatedly quoted the same statistics about lack of connectivity in Indian
country and some states, the number of non-subscribers to basic telephone
service (six percent of the U.S. population), and who did and did not own
computer, and the number of unfilled high tech jobs in America (about
350,000). Dan Gillmor of the San Jose Mercury News had an interesting column
on March 1, 1998, disputing the reasons for this high figure. He says that
it reflects the high tech industry's unwillingness to hire older unemployed
workers who have been laid off. He noted that employers can get young ones

Secretary of Commerce Daley said the administration wanted to bring the
benefits of technology to all Americans, so he focused on partnerships
between government, industry, and the third sector of non-profits and
citizens' groups. Industry will be paid back many times over, he claimed.
They will have a bigger customer base, and he sees the Internet as 'the
great equalizer' in the coming years, and he stressed the need to teach at
risk kids to become computer programmers, to create a 'family-friendly'
Internet, and to improve the technology through Internet II program.

Irving went over some of the dismal statistics (one in ten rural libraries
offered web access; one in four of the poorest households don't have phones,
etc) and said that the U.S. Census will be doing a new analysis of the use
of technology. It will be released in 1999.

It was hard to figure out the target audience for this conference. Many of
the practitioners from the street, storefront, and library worlds already
knew of the problems and the challenges. The invited public utilities
commissioners may not have been aware of many of the featured projects
outside their own state, and the handful of members of Congress who showed
up were glad to see evidence that the money they brought home to their
districts and states resulted in some tangible good for the disconnected and
for industry.

Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights talked about his
dad's inability to accumulate wealth in the 1940's by buying a Levittown
home because he was black. He linked this to opportunities in the virtual
world where blacks would have less chance of getting online, learning new
skills, and getting good jobs. Again, they will have less chance to
accumulate wealth over the long term. His emphasis was on shaping public
policy. That, of course, shifts the flow of money and resources and can
bring about a significant change.

James A. Casey of Native American Public Telecommunications said that
"technology is the horse of the 7th generation," meaning that the horse had
a far reaching effect on the power structure among the Plains Indians (as
information technology would in this century) and that it would not just
affect the kids and grandchildren, but into the seventh generation. So much
for 'web weeks' and quarterly profits! He educated the audience about the
need to consider the appropriateness of information on the Internet. While
the current debate is framed around the First Amendment, pornography, and
access to disruptive information, he reminded us that certain knowledge is
not okay for young Indian kids to see (Hopi religious information, for
example), and some elders are upset with what's available on the Net. They
want to determine how sacred knowledge is passed on within their own
culture. This was the only reference to the corrosive effects of Internet
access, but in discussions attendees spoke about their hopes and doubts
concerning the effects of the Internet (and computers). However, most of the
many speeches were more than upbeat. They were insistent that people would
not have a decent future unless they were well-versed in computer and
network technology. The mantra of "preparing our youth for the 21st Century
workplace" was de rigeur in many of the speeches.

A different note was sounded by William Milliken of Communities and Schools.
He was a polished subversive who knew how to work the streets and induce
industrialists to write checks out of altruism or fear of what the
disenfranchised might do. "Give me some checks and Wall Street won't burn."
He reminded us that relationships change people, not computers. "They have
to get turned on to living before they can get turned on to learning." He
sees technology speeding up the division between the haves and have nots.
While I have met a few people who would reject information technology for
that reason, most everyone here advocated the spread in order to slow down
the perceived rate of increase in the gap, even if it does not erase the

The conference was heavily over-scheduled with speakers, with very little
time for questions and answers and only one discussion period at the end.
The program claimed a session would be a 'conversation' but it was really a
broadcast from each speaker to the audience. Many of the talks did not drill
down into the issues and problems, even if the speaker had the expertise.
Just not enough time. This was unfortunate because I had a sense that there
was more "there" there.

As a librarian, I was interested if libraries are viewed as a remedy for the
lack of access in rural areas and inner cities. Carla Hayden, a black
librarian from Baltimore (and a former grant recipient when I worked at
Apple) gave a good summary of the active role played by her library, Enoch
Pratt. Hayden made it clear that her programs were reaching the at risk
youth in Baltimore. She had just heard that Gates was funding the a branch
to become a training center for the public and for libraries. However, a
number of black people said during the breaks that the library was not a
place to go, it was not cool; it was for white ladies, not for black youth,
and that it did not have the kind of activities and information they wanted.
Larry Irving, who is black, spent his youth working through the collections
of local libraries, and does see them as critical links in the efforts to
bridge the gap. Many libraries will benefit from the E-rate (the variable
discounts for connectivity and equipment funded by a controversial new fund
established by the Federal Communications Commission), and we had a number
of tutorials on the ins and outs of applying for this discount. At the time
of the conference the applications were coming in at the rate of 700 per
day. There are some stupid rules that preclude the use of some wireless
systems, but that might be changed if enough people care to protest.

The luncheon speaker on the first day was Don Tapscott, a writer who runs a
Canadian think-tank, Alliance for Converging Technologies. I had heard about
his book, Growing Up Digital: the Rise of the Net Generation, on the CTCNet
listserv. I was half-way through the copy from my local library when I
noticed that he would be speaking at this conference, so I finished it two
days before this meeting began. It was fresh in my mind when he spoke. He
had more time to speak than anyone else during the conference, and he fit
well in the program. If you had read the book there was only one thing new
in his talk: the names of the large companies who are his clients. This was
not evident in the book, which was written as if to help the reader (and
marketers) really understand the networked kids of the late 90's...and to
sell to them. See my review of his book
( for an in-depth critique of this
theme. The talk was well-received, and it was one of the better ones, even
if I did not agree with all his points. Tapscott did not talk and run but
stayed around both days to attend other sessions.

Conference meals are a good place to break out of your circle of
acquaintances and get to know people you might never meet on or offline. I
usually sit at an empty table and see who shows up. It has only failed once,
in Venezuela, when I took a seat at a table and was only joined by an
American manufacturer of cable modems, and I had to talk tech instead of
learn more about Latin American issues. This time I met a laconic Canadian
regulator and Peter Jahn, a more talkative Public Service Commission
communications analyst from Wisconsin. 

Peter Jahn and I talked about the effects of subsidies on rural telephone
companies and ISPs and community networks.  I was concerned that not
allowing any kind of economic development traffic on a subsidized
"educational" link might split up efforts to link up a whole community. Jahn
sent me a paper that outlined another problem with the subsidies in
Wisconsin: the state program known as TEACH  provides heaavy subsidies (as
do the proposed E-rate funds) for a Net connection.  "By eliminating any
incentive to avoid bying long, expensive dedicated lines, TEACH eliminates
the main reason a school or library would have to choose a local ISP." He
desribes the rather fragile economics of small rural ISPs and why it needed
dedicated customers like schools and libraries. In effect, the policy tends
to move business out of the local area and to the larger metro areas.  His
paper is entitled "Internet Access in Rural Wisconsin" and is in paper form:
The National Regulatory Research Institute Quarterly Bulletin for Fall 1997.

Another conversation involved two Africans working in the U.S. (a professor
and a community organizer), and an American setting up a telecenter in
Zimbabwe. The various American Indian attendees located each other quite
readily, and certainly different groups of city officials, librarians,
educators, and video conferencing proponents took the occasion to network.

Many of the demo sessions were on video conferencing. A couple of firms
stressed that they could interconnect, but most, even if they were running
IP, mainly talked to their own gear because of proprietary CODECs and
software. The Columbia Basin (WA) Public Information Network had a modest
demo of their many accomplishments. They were not flashy, but after studying
their expense sheets (part of the massive handouts for all the demos), I saw
how effective a small amount of government money and a large amount of local
volunteer efforts can carry a community. The evening meal was followed by a
rather good talk by John Morgridge of Cisco who has taken a strong interest
in underserved schools in Silicon Valley and now all over the U.S. They are
setting up Cisco 'academies' in many of the U.S. empowerment zones in the
major cities, and I know they are offering support for a new center in
Merida, Venezuela, for the training of Latin American networkers, teachers,
librarians, and students.

The evening program by Master Vision International hooked up musicians in
Canada, Minnesota, New York, and at the conference. A master violinist named
Zuckerman coached a student in some fine points of bow technique as she
stood before us and he sat on a chair in Ottawa. It was a compelling
application that made use of 4 ISDN lines, but we had no idea of what that
sort of demo might cost or how it would translate into funded program that
could be justified in a business plan of a school or regional economic
development office. For me it had a far greater impact than the talking
heads or telemedicine demos earlier in the day.

Thursday, February 26. Vice President Gore
When a dignitary agrees to speak at a medium-sized conference, the
organizers don't know for sure if some other event or crisis will divert the
star speaker. The last time I had heard Al Gore was when he was a senator
speaking to librarians, just after the start of the Gulf War (which he
supported). He spent the whole time talking about the war, rather than
'rotting information in America's data silos' (one of his metaphors from the
early 90's). This time, the U.S. had not initiated another attack on Iraq,
and so Vice President Gore could stick to the theme of the conference. Bomb
dogs sniffed people entering the hall, and the SS staff and his handlers
took positions around the hall. 700 people waited about 20 minutes as he saw
demos of the video conferencing applications, and someone muttered that Gore
cared more about technology than people's time, but he got a standing
ovation when he entered. Besides, I waited a lot longer for Ray Charles to
show up at a concert in Chicago 35 years ago.

Gore does not strike me as a wooden speaker, and that's because he is at
ease using and talking about technology. It's just that his talk did not
have a lot of fresh material. He covered the E-rate and the administration's
program to connect schools. He made an abrupt transition from talking about
the clogged two lane highways of post-war Tennessee to the increased
computational power of the PC. Fast and numerous cars plus poor highway
system contrasted with fast and numerous PCs and the slow data
communications system of the late 90's US. He said that America's history
was one of removing barriers to growth and opportunity. He mentioned the
Homestead Act of the 19th century, ignoring the fact that it took away lands
from the original inhabitants.

He looked forward to the day when kids could 'reach across the keyboard to
every book ever written, every painting and piece of music ever composed'
and then he went over some of the Dept. of Education statistics on school
access. He criticized the people opposing the E-rate fund, "You want to
ration information and education, and it would darken the future of some of
our brightest children." He mentioned the $10 million for low income
computer centers and reiterated the goal of connecting all the classrooms
and libraries in the nation.

Gore sees access to the Net and to advanced computers as the best way of
satisfying the ravenous appetites of America's learners, and he gave
examples of local success stories from TIIAP grantees such as Charlotte's
Web in North Carolina.

On this second day speeches were offered by other legislators, Director
Kennard of the FCC, and people from SeniorNet, Consumer Federation of
America, Center for Media Education, and a number of companies including
Microsoft, BellSouth, and various regulators and government officials. The
final couple of hours was a brainstorming session to determine the most
important policy goals and barriers to reaching those goals. I had to leave
for a conference phone call and did not attend the wrap up session.

Had there been more small group sessions, we would have had time to open
discussion on some issues and get beyond (or question) the broad statements
that fit so well in public speeches. I am influenced by the format chosen by
the rural telecommunications conference in Aspen in October 1997, where the
participants designed part of the sessions as they met, and many of the
others were truly conversations among the panel members and not just one way
talks to a passive audience.

Friday: Building Community Networks
The post conference was a series of short talks aimed at people building
community networks. PULP's Bob Pillar's view of what community networking
certainly coincided with mine, but many of the speakers talked about
exclusively school networks, technology trends of the Internet, the E-rate
(which cannot be easily used if a community network engages in any kind of
economic development activity), Internet education from Computer Curriculum
Corporation, and more video conferencing. Woody Kerkeslager, a VP at AT&T
whom I remember from NREN days in the early 90's, gave a clear presentation
on RoseNet in Madison, New Jersey (his residence). This was on target and
made up partially for the other talks in that session. There was a useful
track on budgeting and doing business plans with speakers from CTCNet and
NTIA. I know how many of the early community networks failed to devote
enough attention to budgeting, so it was good to have this emphasized for
the 200 plus registrants who planned to initiate some CN activity.

Various funders also spoke about their requirements and direction: NTIA,
Bell Atlantic Foundation, Dept. of Education, the Rural Health Care
Cooperative. Tim Walter of The Aspen Institute, led the audience through an
exercise and related his own experiences in being turned down for brilliant
proposals and receiving funding for others. I am still concerned that so
many people are looking at the same pool to supply them with grant funds.
The work is in mining local foundations and businesses for support, and even
this may not be enough.

The National Geographic Society is doing a survey about migration and
community. If you are interested in the effects of migration and the changes
going on in geographic communities, contact Valerie May
<> Community Networks already in existence may
wish to host "Map the Global Village" sessions for this ambitious project.

Cheryl Bursh, <> the president of Hands, Feet, and
Mouth, Inc. a Georgia-based non-profit, gave an excellent talk on the
programs in her own communities (neighborhood access centers in three
different places) and how organizers need to go door to door to spread the
word. She emphasized how other priorities and crises may make it seem like
the residents are disinterested, but it's a matter of focus, and we could
tell that her persistence and patience were paying off. It was one of the
best talks I heard and made me want to find out more about her program.
Had this been a pre-conference the attendees might have felt less
constrained in sitting through so many presentations. As it was, it followed
on two days of lectures that was relieved mainly by the meal breaks where
more interaction took place. Still, the content on community networks was
useful, but it did not delve enough into the shift from reliance on grants
to the resale of services (as Charlotte's Web is doing) which is unfamiliar
territory for many government and non-profit endeavors.

My thanks to the Morino Institute for supporting this trip and conference

Here are a few web sites for organizations mentioned in the report:
Public Utilities Law Project
National Telecommunications and Information Administration
1997 Survey of public libraries and the Internet 
Community Technology Center Network
Association For Community Networking
E-Rate hotline

March 3, 1998 Steve Cisler <>

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