Susan Crawford: Open Government depends on improving connectivity

To kick off its Open Government News Challenge, the Knight Foundation tapped telecommunications policy expert Susan Crawford to provide her insights on the challenges to and opportunities of opening government.  In her article, “First steps to Open Gov- getting your ducts in a row,” she makes the argument that “modern versions of open government only work if the basic input, connectivity, can be taken for granted.” The broader need for improved Internet service to bolster America’s competitiveness and economic standing is the subject of her book Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the Gilded Age. Focused specifically on open government, Crawford argues that as city governments work to make their administrations “more innovative, efficient, transparent, open-to-outside expertise, and better at service delivery, they’re going to need cheaper and continually-higher-capacity, high-speed Internet access. And their communities are going to need the same thing.” At this point, she notes, most Americans only have one choice for Internet speeds over 25 Mbps—their local cable incumbent. Crawford encourages city governments to consider the type of network their communities will need to handle the digital demands of 10 years from now. In her estimation, the “current highly-concentrated market for wired high-speed internet access, which is subject neither to competition nor significant oversight,” is unlikely to provide the type of access governments and citizens require. Instead, she proposes that governments work toward providing high-capacity fiber networks to their communities, since “fiber is the global standard – the new general purpose network taking the place of the telephone.”

For the goal of more open communities to become a reality through improved networks, Crawford believes that city governments must undertake the organizing of a number of assets, including: “Access to rights of way and ducts; speeding up permitting processes; the political courage to call for a wholesale fiber ring connecting public buildings and other community anchor institutions; access to low-rate, long-term financing so that a competitive player can build what the city needs; and a requirement that the wholesale player provide reasonably-priced, non-discriminatory commodity service to any and all competitive retail communications vendors.”

Crawford makes it clear that improving Internet access is a means to not only improve the technological capabilities of governments and citizens, but also a step toward greater equality. While all Americans “tend to pay higher prices for slower speeds compared to people in many countries,” evidence shows that “a lack of wired high-speed Internet access at home is closely tied to socioeconomic status, race, and education.” And though smartphones are undoubtedly creating a more connected world, “at least 83% of all smartphone users also have a wired connection, and people relying on smartphone Internet access alone are very likely to be poor or a member of a minority group.” Without even considering the long-term benefits of any specific open government projects, Crawford predicts inevitable advantages from improved community Internet access. She believes that for governments, “the near-term payoff will be dramatically lower bills” and “long-term, you’ll be empowering every member of your community and local economy.”

The Knight Open Government News Challenge runs from February 12 to March 18, and will provide $5 million to support chosen open government projects. The News Challenge is only the latest example of the foundation’s efforts to make government more transparent and innovative. Their Digital Citizenship: Tech for Engagement program provides funding to initiatives that fall into three broad categories: deepening citizen engagement, creating infrastructure for the civic field and opening government.

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