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CFP'93 - Civille

CFP'93 - New Investments in Civic Networking

by Richard Civille

Center for Civic Networking
Washington, D.C.

The Federal government may be prepared to provide substantial funding for public access telecommunications. The State of the Union address on February 17th may be looked back upon as the political watershed which prepared the American people and economy for the 21st Century. The new President may have laid foundations for finally shifting government policy - away from the smokestack mass media/mass production thinking of the past - and towards the rapidly accelerating, diverse and complex information age. It is far too early to tell what the outcome of the President's economic strategy will be or how Congress will reconcile Administration proposals with a vast array of special interests and the political pain of temporarily increasing the deficit ceiling. Yet, preliminary analyses indicate stimulus and long-term investments in civic networking could be substantial, with conservative estimates in the tens of millions of dollars. Much work remains in examining these proposals in detail, and working to promote their passage.

What is civic networking? A country that works smarter; that enjoys more efficient, less costly government - guided by a better informed citizenry; that supports job growth through small businesses; that promotes life-long learning - will be a country laced with a high-speed infrastructure for information with civic purpose. While the "long-haul" components of such an infrastructure may be best left to the private sector, funding local connectivity; that is, the linking of schools, libraries and civic institutions - the onramps to the information highways - appears to be a role for good government to play.

A Vision of Change for America, the 145 page Office of Management and Budget (OMB) report accompanying Clinton's address contains specific language and proposals promoting a national information infrastructure. Included are increased NSF funding for high-performance computing and networks, substantial funding for core applications in health care and education through NIH, NIST and DOE and even wide area networking of workstations servicing the Social Security administration. Such proposals have been promoted by corporations, large research institutions, and cost-containment advocates for years.

Yet, perhaps even more significantly, are specific proposals for funding innovative telecommunications projects and applications research at the local level, where jobs and the economy are more directly affected. For example, a small program at the National Telecommunication and Information Agency (NTIA) which traditionally funds public radio and television stations is poised to receive a stimulus infusion in 1993 of $64 million dollars for "Information Highway" demonstration projects. Significantly, these funds are to be used by "States, local governments, universities, school systems, and non-profits...and other public information producers." The report goes on to say that such activities "could pay enormous dividends to the US economy." This particular program, one small example, grows to an annual appropriation of $150 million dollars a year by 1995 - if Congress approves. For the emerging civic networking movement of freenets, community cable broadcasters and other public access information services, this is very good news.

The economic proposals are divided between a short-term stimulus package and a longer term investment program. The stimulus package is referred to as "The Summer of Opportunity", and will directly create jobs by the summer of 1993, if approved by Congress. The longer term investment program, "Rebuild America" invests in domestic infrastructure while reforming health care, welfare and streamlining delivery of government services. For domestic infrastructure, A Vision of Change for America says that "We will upgrade our nation's roads, bridges, mass transit; and create 'information highways' that link homes, businesses, schools and libraries to databases and public records."

Short-Term Stimulus: The Summer of Opportunity

In the near-term, with funds available within several months if Congress approves, are proposals for profiling skills of unemployed workers to facilitate job matching searches, the information highway demonstration projects mentioned, economic development grant increases for infrastructure, and small-business tax credits to "encourage modernization of productive equipment."

Civic networking initiatives - that is, regional and local public information systems and services - fit this stimulus framework well. A $14 million dollar Labor/Worker Profiling program in 1993 and 1994 is proposed "to assist the States in developing automated systems to identify laid-off workers who may have had difficulties in finding new jobs, and to assist them in finding employment." Such automated systems, developed by states, could be readily integrated into job banks offered through non-profit public access computer systems under development in many cities around the country. NTIA grants for local, non-profit demonstration projects could thus help leverage the profiling program.

The Economic Development Administration, a branch of the Commerce Department, may fund an additional $94 million dollars in 1993 for infrastructure projects in economically hard-hit locations. During previous administrations, such projects typically entailed pre-fabricated industrial parks and accompanying improvements in sewage - a supply-side approach for creating productive capacity at the local level. However, there is new interest within the EDA that guidelines might now be shifted towards funding of local information infrastructure. This raises interesting new questions about the role of public works committees in promoting development of "onramps" to a national information infrastructure. While telephone companies and cable operators tend to focus their attentions on the Telecommunications and Finance subcommittee of the Commerce Committee in the House, very little attention has been paid to - or by - the House Public Works Committee, where a large number of new Democrat representatives are now serving. Many of these new legislators are young, in their early to mid-30's and should have the intuitive understanding of the emerging information economy that is often lacking in the older generation of law makers and civil service administrators. Broadening the national information infrastructure debate into committees directly dealing with local communities and economies, unlike the science or commerce committees which tend to deal with large institutions or regulatory and industrial policy, would be a good idea.

Small business tax credits to "encourage modernization of productive equipment" is a thinly disguised incentive to retire older generation computer hardware. Many small businesses would leap at the chance to upgrade, and wholesalers would benefit. This would be good for the economy, and drive the costs of increasingly powerful personal computers down even further - towards the level of consumer electronics - fueling the home market as a side benefit. Far too many small enterprises have kept old personal computers, slow modems and old-generation laser printers because of antiquated depreciation schedules which equate the productive lifetimes of office furniture with personal computers. Yet, information technology rapidly depreciates from a competitive asset to a burden within one generational cycle of the technology, which can take place within two years, or even less. Increasing productive capacity of small-businesses should have benefits in promoting access and use of information services for example, just by opening up the range of available applications. At the local level, this may result in increased demand to public access information services which often maintain materials about local government, for example city council minutes, which are of ongoing interest to small businesses. Moreover, with modernized office computers and faster modems, prospects for using geographic information services (GIS) and multimedia applications become far more viable, which could fuel new markets for civic networking providers.

Long-Term Investment: Rebuild America

The stimulus program is being sold as a first step towards a longer term investment strategy, referred to as "Rebuild America." In the long view, the Administration makes equal distinction between roads and bridges, and "information highways." The goal is to boost investment in domestic infrastructure, from high-speed inter-urban rail to high-speed computer networks. Civic networking efforts could benefit through proposed broadening of NTIA grants, a face-lift of USDA's Cooperative Extension Service, proposals for Community Development Banks and rural development initiatives which promote "micro-businesses...and community infrastructure" and a "one stop career shopping" proposal to be funded through the Department of Labor.

The NTIA "Information Highway" demonstration project grant program cited earlier is a good example of how the Administration proposes to "build on the 1993 stimulus initiative by providing seed money to 'jumpstart' the development of these networks." This particular program could become quite large between 1995 and 1998, "$150 million annually would be made available." These funds could finance onramps into a national highspeed data highway through direct funding to cities, schools and non-profits. This program could provide substantial momentum for the emerging civic network movement and seed a large variety of models and testbeds appropriate to local conditions.

The venerable Cooperative Extension Service (CES), created by Abraham Lincoln to disseminate university research to useful, local applications has strongly embraced the Internet and worked hard to shift its mission away from serving a dwindling base of family farmers. The CES now seeks a far more diverse client base of small businesses in rural communities and is developing 21st century services, ranging from manufacturing research to child care training. By the end of 1993, the CES plans to have all county extension agents on the Internet. With its century old service tradition with Land Grant colleges providing public access to university research, some state extension services - notably Pennsylvania - have implemented public access computer networks through county extension offices. They have proposed to offer local dial-in Internet access to farmers, schools and civic institutions for only a modest upgrade of their existing systems. Combining new efficiencies and information technologies, with an old service tradition, embracing public access at the community level could have important benefits to civic networking initiatives around the country.

Proposed Community Development Banks would receive $350 million over four years to finance small businesses and service programs in depressed inner-city locations, while a rural development initiative would pump hundreds of millions targeted to small, emerging "micro-enterprises." These investments would provide "increased employment opportunities for rural individuals, and upgrade community infrastructure to improve the quality of life for all rural residents." Such infrastructure, particularly to support very small businesses, could also support locally operated information services which could bring additional incomes to rural communities. Within this mix again, are funding opportunities for civic networking at the regional and local level, where such activities show promise in quality of life improvements or community development.

The Labor/Worker profiling proposal outlined in the Stimulus package would be expanded dramatically in the Rebuild America program. Here, $900 million is proposed for a "one-stop-shopping" program to be developed through 1997. This program "would make it easier for adults seeking to change jobs or careers or upgrade their skills to obtain access to the confusing array of Federal programs and services by developing 'one-stop-shop' career centers." Such a program would be based on development of an automated system that must feed in part from local job opportunities and would need to be community-based. This again, is an opportunity for civic networking initiatives such as on-line job banks maintained by local non-profit organizations to be integrated into a larger government effort.

Investing in Civic Networking

Civic networks are grass roots communications initiatives. They provide new ways to combine media to improve access to public information, enhance participation in government, and aid in the convenient discharge of public obligations. These initiatives are testbeds for developing new forms of citizen participation, new ideas for information services and their delivery, and new models that can inform developers of state and federal policy.

Information infrastructure demonstration projects funded by government should target important non-market applications such as preventive health-care, job training, informal education, enhance civic participation in governance, and reduce costs of delivering services. Pilot projects should be funded which could demonstrate the use of available, open platform technologies, such as internetworking tools, in coordinating and integrating local public activities conducted across all media - radio, television, cable and computer. Any long-term strategy for a National Information Infrastructure must also demonstrate positive effects on low and moderate income families, and potential for lifting Americans out of poverty rather than creating a two-tier society of information haves and have-nots.

There is no guarantee that any of these newly proposed programs will survive Congress, and no way of predicting how much might become available to civic networking practitioners. However the picture is promising. The programs outlined have cumulative spending impacts in the hundreds of millions, yearly, for the foreseeable future. In the case of the NTIA program for example, there could be room for some optimism. Over $100 million might be provided annually for publicly funded onramps into a national information infrastructure once the case is made through early projects funded by the smaller, initial appropriations in '93 and '94.

The source for these numbers and the specific language for these proposals is the Office on Management and Budget. OMB's report, A Vision of Change for America was released to accompany President Clinton's State of the Union address. Thus, these proposals and numbers can be taken seriously and campaigned for with some expectation of Administration support. They can be clustered into a package which promotes regional and local economic and social development using telecommunications and information technology. Thus, a "Civic Networking Investment" package can be identified across a number of the President's separate proposals. This creates a powerful framework for an important new policy agenda which can be embraced by a wide coalition of groups representing a broad range of public interests agendas.

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