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Networks for People 1999

The Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration's (NTIA's) Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (later renamed the Technology Opportunities Program) hosted its 3rd annual "Networks for People Conference on Monday and Tuesday, November 1-2, 1999 at the Key Bridge Marriott in Arlington, Virginia. The two-day conference focused on information technology and how it impacts the lives of everyday Americans in the delivery of business services, education, healthcare and government services.

Commerce Secretary William Daley opened the two-day meeting Monday in Arlington, Va., saying it provided a good stepping stone for a broader summit on the digital divide next month. Government leaders and corporate executives are expected at that meeting to talk about how the public and private sectors can work together to provide Internet access to all Americans.

"Today, about 60 percent of American households lack access to computers, and roughly three-quarters of households lack Internet access," Daley said. "The gap between information 'haves' and 'have-nots,' if it continues, threatens to impair the well-being of our communities, the development of a skilled workforce and the economic health of our nation. Therefore, we must be sure that the benefits of the Information Age are available to all Americans."

Daley introduced Sen. Byron Dorgan (D, ND) who suggested that universal-service policies such as those that have made basic telephone service nearly ubiquitous in the United States should be extended to advanced telecommunications services. "If we have a nation of haves and have-nots with respect to broadband access, we almost certainly will have a digital divide where there will be areas of the country that will grow and have economic opportunity and others [that] will be left behind," Sen. Dorgan said. "It will just be inevitable."

The keynote adddress was delivered by Gary Chapman, director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs. Chapman predicted that the key technologies of the next decade will include high bandwidth, which he said will create "all kinds of capabilities" such as real-time video-conferencing, real-time telemedicine, high-definition "virtual reality" modeling, video-on-demand and more. He said wireless networking will come into its own, too, and will be a "huge boon" for nonprofit institutions — especially schools. In addition, he said that digital television will allow for programming that is targeted to specific neighborhoods and for the transmission of data along with tv signals; he said public broadcasters and community networks should form alliances to take advantage of this "great new frontier." What's more, Chapman predicted that technological advances will lead society toward "ubiquitous," or "pervasive" computing — that is, basic computing and telecommunications capabilities will come to be vested in a wide range of appliances other than computers.

Such innovations promise to bring new efficiency and convenience to our lives, but Chapman said current trends present substantial challenges to public-interesting networking efforts as well — challenges that will require creative, new thinking. One challenge is the digital divide; Chapman argued that Americans must come to recognize that the solution to this problem does not lie simply in training individuals to develop the technical skills required to get good jobs, but also in addressing the difficulties that entire communities face. Education, training and privacy also represent additional challenges that Americans have only begun to address, Chapman added.

Yet another challenge, according to Chapman, is the possible spread of proprietary networks, in which telecommunications-service providers also control content. "It is not clear that we, as public-interest networks, will have access to these (new) networks," he warned. "You should be talking about open access, about public standards, about public domain and about keeping the Internet free and open from end to end so that we (don't get) locked out simply because we're not a lucrative partner for the people who are delivering services to the home."

See Gary Chapman's full presentation.

Much of the first day wasdevoted to exploring practical issues that public networking projects face: what kind of changes organizations must make so they can take advantage of new technologies; what opportunities cutting-edge technologies present for nonprofit organizations (and how to pay for these new technologies despite tight budgets); how to sustain telecommunications projects when federal grant money runs out; and how to bridge the digital divide.

On the second day, participants saw a preview of a program the Public Broadcasting Service will air January 28 examining the digital divide, heard from a diverse group of people involved in international projects designed to promote public-interest uses of information technology, and observed a lively discussion among representatives of leading foundations about their approaches to funding information-technology projects.

While Chapman opened the conference by urging participants to look at the big picture, a group of leaders from private foundations closed the gathering on a more pragmatic note, discussing what funders are seeking today in information-technology grant applications. In many respects, their comments echoed concerns important to TOP.

For instance, Willem Scholten, executive director of the Gates Center for Technology Access, said technology should not be the driver of new projects. The Gates center, he said, wants to fund "programs where it's not about technology, it's about a problem in a community." Andrew Blau, program director for the Markle Foundation, said foundations are looking for projects that carefully document what they do. "We don't see enough people taking the time to build evidence showing the link between a project and their goals," he said.

Similarly, the AOL Foundation's David Eisner spoke of the growing importance of collecting data that demonstrates whether projects have achieved their goals. "New technology is forcing a more entrepreneurial attitude in foundations," Eisner said. Today, he explained, funders are more focused on results.

The ultimate goal, however, remains much the same – namely, to enable people to control technology, and thereby ensure that it helps meet social needs, rather than let technology control us. Chapman captured the argument by suggesting that the title of his keynote speech — "Where is Information Technology Taking Us?" — should be revised. The real title, he said, should be: "Where Do People Want Information Technology to Take Us?"

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