Citizen Professionals · Community Informatics

Big Broadband and Citizen Professionals

I’ve followed with passing interest the development of fiber to the home (FTTH) that is occuring in a few areas around our country and much more extensively overseas.  Along with others, I have wondered just how valuable that much speed really is for most people.  Still, it seems somewhat disconcerting to think that we’ve gone from being a leader in national Internet access to 15th in the world for broadband access.  Further, our definition of broadband is slower than in many of those countries that are ahead of us.  Other countries find it important to bring very high speed Internet access to the home.  The question is what are we missing?

At a presentation Tuesday regarding support for broadband infrastructure development found in the recently signed stimulus package, a consultant utilized an interesting tool developed in the Netherlands that demonstrates the value of Big Broadband (Internet access speeds that are 10-100 times faster than current DSL/Cable speeds in the United States for downloads AND as importantly offer the same very high speeds for uploads as for downloads).  The tool is a simple Windows program, called fiberspeed, that can be accessed at: http://www.mxi.nl/projecten/index1.asp?ph_id=38&pr_id=9

What really caught my attention was just how handicapped people in the United States are compared to other parts of the world when it comes to uploading multimedia files.  For personal use, examples used in the fiberspeed application include personal photos or family videos.  For societal use, examples include instructional videos or even x-ray photos.  For those with high speed DSL or cable, downloads can occur in minutes for large files, but uploads can take hours.

One person attending the meeting asked why the rush to implement Big Broadband since the killer application to demand such high speeds did not yet exist.  I believe this question was well intentioned and reflects the thoughts of many in our consumer-oriented society.  But I also believe the lesson from the fiberspeed example is that the killer application does indeed exist.  It comes in the form of citizen production of multimedia presentations.  Most rural areas, and many low-income urban areas simply do not have access to affordable high speed bandwidth to tell their stories online as citizen journalists using digital images let alone digital video.  And the ability to quickly upload high definition video is only available in very limited places anywhere in the Unitied States.  Nor is access to high grade video conferencing available to most homes in the United States, a valuable tool to allow citizen professionals to work from their homes at a range of collaborative tasks.

But let’s say for a moment that these examples still do not represent the true killer application that demands such high speed Internet be brought to the home.  I would argue that the question also represents a very top-down conceptualization of application development.  It is framed in the idea that Big Broadband isn’t needed until a University or Big Business researcher develops the application that justifies such bandwidth.

What if we started with a bottom-up conceptualization of application development.  What if we conceived of a Big Broadband infrastructure that was open, where people could shop for the best services available from around the world to meet their needs.  And what if we conceived of a development model in which these services used open standards that allowed for anyone to enhance, build upon, and uniquely combine those services to create new ways of doing things.  What if citizen scientists were encouraged to become an active part of the development process, and micro-businesses were encouraged to form to market and support such new services. What if the whole process were opened up to everyone and anyone, bringing together the best and brightest regardless of location, economic status, culture, precisely because they have insights into community needs and goals that only those intimate with their community could bring?

This is not a far fetched dream.  All the pieces are being put in place in Europe and Asia.  It is clear the driving forces for change will come more and more from citizens and not from big business and big universities.  The one thing that is not clear is whether the citizens of the United States will get to play an active role along with their European and Asian counterparts.

References:

Local groups to pursue stimulus money for broadband network (http://www.news-gazette.com/news/technology/2009/02/17/local_groups_to_pursue_stimulus_money_for_broadband_network)

Fiberspeed Application (http://www.mxi.nl/projecten/index1.asp?ph_id=38&pr_id=9)

U.S. Lags Behind in Broadband Infrastructure (http://www.epi.org/economic_snapshots/entry/webfeatures_snapshots_20080423/)

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