SPRINGFIELD, Mass., September 22, 2014 - Three of the most prominent women in communications policy on Thursday highlighted the vital role of citizen participation, activism and corporate engagement to ensure a collective high-speed broadband future.
"The next six to eight months are perhaps going to be the most important months in the history of communications policy,” said Gigi Sohn, special counsel for external affairs at the Federal Communications Commission.
Sohn was referring to the agency's open internet proceeding, possible FCC action to ensure that municipalities are permitted to provide broadband access, and decisions on the proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable and AT&T-DirecTV mega-mergers.
Sohn spoke on a panel at the Broadband Communities economic development conference here in Western Massachusetts. She also lauded the work of her co-panelists Susan Crawford, a former Obama administration technology advisor now a visiting professor at Harvard School of Law; and Sharon Gillett, former head of the FCC's Wireline Competition Division and currently Microsoft's principal strategist for technology policy.
Crawford, a leading architect of the Obama administration's aggressive efforts to stimulate the growth of high-speed internet networks, has been one of the nation's leading visionaries for the power of fiber-optic communication. Of all available internet technologies, fiber is unparalleled in its ability to offer resilient ultra-high speed broadband connections.
Crawford's latest book, The Responsive City: Engaging Cities Through Data-Smart Governance, tracks the role that fiber now plays in the democratic relationships on a civic level. Such technologies that enable greater transparency and problem solving by public officials and residents, the book co-authored with Stephen Goldsmith builds a case for deeper urban interconnectedness through broadband technologies.
"To give people dignified lives, we need to make sure people have fiber access," Crawford said.
She's also begun a new Project Fiber at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. The effort plans to "document futuristic fiber networks being built in Massachusetts," according to a job posting for a research assistantship.
Sohn, Crawford and Gillett all encouraged conference attendees to make their voices heard in Washington. Thanks to the work of internet pioneers like Crawford, Sohn said, Americans have finally begun to understand the importance of policy issues like network neutrality.
Referring to the 3.7 million public comments on the agency's open internet proceeding by the September 15 deadline for comments, Sohn said that "most of them are from ordinary Americans." It's the highest number of comments ever received by the agency.
On net neutrality -- and on the importance of municipalities being permitted to provide broadband internet services -- Gillett said, "Your Congress needs to hear that, too. The White House needs to hear that, too."
Gillett was speaking from experience as the head of one of the FCC's most important bureaus. Prior to her work in Washington, Gillett played a central role bringing higher-capacity broadband to this region of New England through her role as executive director of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute. Crawford praised the work of Gillett and MBI is helping to enhance the fiber economy of the region.
In addition to highlighting the role of broadband infrastructure, Gillett spoke to the key role of digital literacy in enabling better lives through better broadband, and played a video about Microsoft's efforts to teach digital literacy.
"Advanced communications networks are an essential part [of promoting technological advancement, said Gillett. "In and of themselves, they are not sufficient."
Broadband investments also need "an ecosystem of planning, involvement and champions of various kinds," she said.
Gillett also said that in her current role with Microsoft, she sees the company attempting to play an active role as a corporate citizen. And she joked about the name of the Microsoft facility at which she works: the New England Research and Development Center, or NERD Center.
In addition to citizen and corporate influence on actions by policy-makers, Crawford said it was vital to celebrate the connectedness enabled by the internet.
On a global level, Crawford said she launched the annual One Web Day in 2006 in order to create "a global celebration of the internet" or an "Earth Day for the internet."
One Web Day is September 22, 2014.