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Time to Guarantee Universal Internet Access for All San Franciscans


By GovFresh · June 15, 2011

We know our city government can be smarter, faster and more democratic by adopting many of the web-based tools that are now transforming our region’s economy.

But as we implement these Gov 2.0 strategies, there is a foundational principle that must be addressed – every single San Franciscan is entitled to the full service of government, not just for those 80% of households with access to the Internet.

That’s why it is time for the City to Guarantee Universal Access to the Internet for every single San Franciscan.

The small cost of this investment will pay for itself many times over, as it will allow us to create a true E-Government while expanding Internet access – the most fundamental tool for our new economy – to all of our residents.

Better and Less Expensive

Web-based tools are already making our government faster – but they can make it dramatically more efficient as well. An increased level of efficiency could mean both more services – and less cost – if we fully embrace the possibilities of a web-based government.

In the past two decades, the companies that survived and thrived did so because they became dramatically more efficient. While some of this efficiency came unfairly at the expense of workers and their families, much of it also came from wholesale adoption of web-based technologies that improve service while lowering costs. And in fact, data tends to show that the more efficient a company is – the higher the wages and benefits it provides.

Netflix, for example, virtually put Blockbuster out of business because it provides customers with a better product at a reduced cost. Everybody but Blockbuster wins in this equation – and so long as Blockbuster employees are retrained for new jobs and treated fairly – everybody wins in the end by using new technologies to create more efficient delivery of goods and services.

That works in business. But it won’t work in government until every single person has guaranteed access to reliable and high-speed Internet service. It is fine for Netflix to target their marketing to the 80% of the population with access to the Internet. Government can, should and must reach everyone.

That’s why Guaranteed Universal Access in San Francisco is the foundational step to true Government 2.0 reform. When everyone has access, we can truly take advantage of Web 2.0 tools to make government dramatically more efficient.

Not Just Better, More Democratic

Across the world, “crowdsourcing” is being offered as a way to create better products, better user experiences and better outcomes for organizations.

Democracy is the original experiment in crowdsourcing, and it is still working pretty darn well. But it would work even better if every resident had the chance to offer their opinion and contribute their expertise.

Of course, that is fundamentally what elections are all about. But in the four years between elections, politicians make hundreds of decisions that could be improved if we heard from more people.

Right now, our system of resident input is skewed because nearly every single city board and commission meets during the day – when most folks are at work or school. It’s no wonder that most of the testimony heard seems to come from people who have a direct self interest in the outcome.

Guaranteed Universal Access to the Internet would mean rapid adoption of applications like the YouTube Testimony I have proposed, which lets any resident weigh in on a topic using free technology, even if his or her schedule prevents them from coming down to City Hall.

This is just one idea among hundreds that have been proposed as part of a growing Gov 2.0 movement. But to fully realize this potential, we can’t leave any household behind. That’s why we need Guaranteed Universal Access to the Internet.

The Telephone Precedent

We have been here before. For example, when the telephone became such a prevalent technology that it was essentially a requirement, the federal government stepped in with a Universal Service legislation to make telephone service available and affordable to virtually all Americans.

Telephone providers now pay a small fee that subsidizes phone costs for low-income Americans. A small part of this fee also goes to extend broadband Internet access, but in a much more limited fashion.

First in Finland

One nation is already leading the way in Guaranteed Universal Access to its residents. In 2009, Finland became the first country to make broadband access a legal right. One inspiring detail about the Finnish move to Universal Access is that it took the country only 9 months to start to implement the law (service began July 2010 with full goals to be meet by 2015).

Finland does not subsidize the plan, rather they require all broadband companies to be able to hook up customers should they so desire. It is worth noting that the law only pertained to broadband access, not if it would be reasonably priced.

The UN Calls Access “A Human Right”

Just this past week, a United Nations report declared Internet access a basic human right. The report focused on the democratizing potential of the unfettered exchange of information and ideas.

It also points out that even in democratic societies, an informed and engaged population holds governments accountable.

As the former Executive Director of the Asian Law Caucus, I also have firsthand experience with the civil rights issues created by our continued digital divide. The UN calls Universal Access a human right in the global context. Here at home, it is truly a civil right.

And the indisputable reality is that San Franciscans cannot participate fully in our government, in our education system or in our economy without access to the Internet.

Free WiFi Movement

As is so often the case, San Francisco has long provided leadership on this important issue. In fact, our city even overwhelmingly voted in 2007 to support the concept of free high-speed WiFi for all San Franciscans.

Since then, there have been numerous steps in the right direction. The City’s Housing Authority has begun to install free high-speed WiFi in city-owned housing projects. And various hotspots around the city – from the airport to Union Square – have been established.

Of course, local businesses are also providing free WiFi, from big chains like Starbucks to the locally owned corner coffee shop.

But while all of these moves are beneficial – the time has come to go from small steps to final leaps. To transform our government, make it more efficient, and make if more democratic and responsive – we need Guaranteed Universal Access.

A Plan for Universal Access

The basics of Guaranteed Universal Access are simple – every household in San Francisco should be guaranteed affordable high-speed access to the Internet and a way to access it.

The structure of such a plan should be as varied as the Internet itself. The city should invest in free WiFi in every neighborhood. The City should make available its own dark fiber network in exchange for no-cost or low-cost service to San Franciscans. The city should subsidize on a sliding scale laptops or tablets for those families that could not otherwise afford them. And we should consider actually using the franchise fees we now collect on telephone service and from our cable providers for this important purpose.

An Investment that Will Pay for Itself

People who say government should “run like a business” usually are not focused on the fact that our motive is not profit – it is to provide service.

But we can take a page from businesses – and use some basic tools to better understand what investments we should make. And the basic tool of a modern business is a Return on Investment (ROI) calculator to answer the question – what return can we expect for our investment?

Because service rather than profit is our motive – I think it is fair to make such decisions through the prism of a Civic Return on Investment Calculation. For example, if the city invests $10 million per year to guarantee Universal Access, what return could we expect on that investment?

The big picture is well understood. If we can truly capture the efficiencies of Web 2.0 and bring them to a San Francisco Government 2.0 – the immediate cost savings would be well in excess of $10 million per year.

Take just one example. In my own office, we spend approximately $100,000 for each yearly notice mailing. If every resident had guaranteed access to the Internet, such an expenditure would not be necessary. Not only would an electronic notice be more effective in the sense that it could be available online in many languages, carry links to follow up questions, and allow for instant feedback – but also it would be largely “free.”

My Assessor-Recorder’s Office is just one of scores of city departments and agencies. Just last week, I received a multi-page and colorful mailing from the San Francisco PUC updating me on its water improvement project. This is a fine public service – but a costly one. The same information emailed to me, or posted on the city’s website, would not only be much less costly, but also it would also be more useful.

As election season rolls around, we all can expect those phone-book sized sample ballots, the cost of which is many millions per election. The same information provided online would be more useful – and much less costly.

The savings add up. We could save well over $10 million in printing and mailing costs each year – but these savings are only possible through Guaranteed Universal Access.

The Civic Return on Investment

By creating Universal Access, we will do more than save money in the first year alone and every year after that. We will help city government become a platform for innovation – in City Hall and far beyond.

As progressive as our city tends to be in most respects, our city government itself is conservative in its approach to change. The rapid pace of web technologies could help speed up the necessary changes we need in city government – making us more effective, more responsive and less costly.

And a better government is just the start on the Civic Return on Investment. Access to the Internet is not a luxury anymore. Could you imagine looking for a job, doing your homework, researching how to cast an intelligent ballot without access to the Internet?

Here we are in San Francisco claiming to be the capitol of the world’s digital economy. Yet a significant number of our residents can’t access this new economy because they have no reliable access to the Internet.

We can change that. We can save money while doing more as a city government. And at the same time we make our economy larger and more inclusive by guaranteeing Universal Access to the Internet. How Should We Proceed

As one of the co-chairs of the city’s Solar Task Force, I saw the power of crowdsourcing expertise. We brought together community leaders and experts, and the result was the extraordinarily effective GoSolarSF program.

We should Crowdsource this task in the same way. Starting with bringing together the experts – but including the entire community through Web 2.0 tools. We should go forward with the full recognition that there will be a yearly cost. We should go forward by calculating the full financial and social benefits returned for that investment.

But most of all – we should go forward now. The time has come to transform our city government and to transform lives in our city by bringing full and equal access to the Internet for all San Franciscans.