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Digital Literacy Legend and Rural Telecommunications Congress Board Member Gene Crick Dies

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Gene Crick, a longtime broadband evangelist, died of a heart attack at home in Bastrop, Texas, on August 15.

Gene spent more than four decades advocating for broadband in the United States and around the world. He set up the first free public internet facilities in Texas, designed grant programs for community networking, developed pilot programs for community networking and telehealth, and advised state and federal agencies, foreign governments and nonprofit organizations on broadband issues.

Gene presented his rural internet road show for rural leaders and citizens across Texas as part of the launch of the $1.5 billion Texas Infrastructure Fund in the mid-1990s. His message was that locals could do great things for themselves and others once they were online. He was also on the founding boards of the Association for Community Networking in 1993 and the Rural Telecom Congress in 1997.  (See more details here.)

A Global Win-Win

This list barely hints at the range of his impact. More important than any single accomplishment was his commitment to the internet as a force for good. As a vocal leader of the community networking movement since before the free-nets emerged in the 1980s, he articulated the vision – shared by most early adopters of online community capacity building – of a global “win-win” in which all members of the human family could participate in the global internet economy and achieve the peace and prosperity that broadband makes possible. In other words, he thought globally and acted locally.

Gene raised awareness among rural and vulnerable populations about how broadband could empower them to seek equity of opportunity and promote life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all. He was always humorous and generous, and he had a heart as big as Texas. He was chagrined at the destruction of policies that promoted equal opportunity, including net neutrality and citizens’ rights to privacy and control over their own information.

One of those good folks who worked for the benefit of all, Gene tried to discover best practices, amid evolving technologies, politics and public perceptions, for teaching people to use the internet to help themselves and others.

Meeting Today’s Challenges

During the 1990s, Gene presented at Apple-sponsored community networking conferences with Steve Snow of Charlotte’s Web and Pat Finn of La Plaza Telecommunity Learning Center, founders of the first two World Wide Web–based community networks. But as ISPs proliferated, technology corporations lost their interest in community networking.

In 2019, good people are challenged to have a voice on the internet and stand up for what they believe in. Civil discourse online has been overwhelmed by trolls and bad actors. Meaningful, measurable “broadband best practices” are badly needed.

Perhaps the tide is turning. Founders of the internet and the WWW, such as Tim Berners-Lee and several tech billionaires, are becoming increasingly vocal about corporate and governmental abuses that diminish the internet’s economic and social potential. There is a new movement to return to the original vision – Gene’s original vision – of using the internet to bring people together for the good of all, instead of driving them apart for the political or economic benefit of a few. Let’s hope Big Tech can give us new hope for a positive, connected future in partnership with all members of the human family.

Gene was always humble and was never negative, despite witnessing the dwindling of his vision for a connected world of good folks working together for the global common good. He was a good man and will be sorely missed.

Frank Odasz, president of Lone Eagle Consulting, knew Gene Crick for more than 25 years and was a fellow board member of the Rural Telecom Congress until Gene’s untimely end. Contact him at [email protected]

This article originally appeared in the August-September 2019 edition of Broadband Communities magazine, and is reprinted with permission.

Digital Inclusion

Virt Seeks To Serve As The Hub To Find And Join Virtual Events

Launched last week, virt.com hopes to take advantage of the rise in virtual events by crowdsourcing them in one place.

Tim White

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Photo of GHS co-founder Victor Zonana, left, from Global Health New Zealand

April 13, 2021 – Global Health Strategies, the global advocacy group focused on health and policy, last week launched Virt.com, a new open-source media platform that crowdsources virtual events on various issues.

Those “issue channels” include health, Covid-19, climate and environment, gender, food and nutrition and human rights. It relies on users in different regions posting about upcoming events in those categories.

The launch last week coincided with a new ad campaign called Unmutetheworld, focused on digital equity around the world with the belief that internet access is a human right. It includes partnering with groups like National Digital Inclusion Alliance and grassroots organizations in many different countries.

“The pandemic has transformed our lives. The way we connect, the way we celebrate, the way we mourn, the way we work, access healthcare and learn, has changed,” GHS CEO David Gold said in an interview. “Broadband allows us to connect virtually even during the pandemic, but so many people don’t have access to the internet, they cannot connect, and we have to change that,” he said.

Gold described Virt as a way to connect people globally to meaningful conversations about health, science, policy, technology, among other topics. “We have a window of opportunity right now with the pandemic to really change. Despite all the terrible effects of COVID-19, we have this moment in time to make the case for big investments,” he said.

Gold highlighted the work of GHS and the Unmutetheworld campaign to connect people across different nations. “Broadband access comes to the heart of economic development, we have to take that momentum in the U.S. and expand it around the world,” he said.

Broadband is becoming increasingly more important, with more people working, schooling, or using health services virtually than ever before due to the pandemic.

Broadband central to digital activities

“Broadband used to be a ‘nice to have,’ now it is a ‘must have,’” Angela Siefer, executive director at NDIA, said in an interview. “Twenty years ago, we were worried about having enough computers in a classroom and lucky that one of them connected to the internet, but that has changed now, and we need to keep up with the technology. It permeates our whole lives,” she said.

President Joe Biden recently announced a new $2.3-trillion infrastructure proposal called the American Jobs Plan, which includes $100 billion for broadband programs over eight years. Congress has also recently introduced legislation on broadband initiatives, including $100 billion as part of the Leading Infrastructure for Tomorrow’s America Act, or LIFT America Act, sponsored by the Democratic delegation on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

“We are excited about the potential of these government initiatives, not just for funding deployment, but also to address affordability, digital literacy skills and devices,” Siefer said. “We’ve never had this much awareness about broadband issues. We’re seeing real ideas being put into action.”

Siefer also mentioned state-level efforts to expand broadband, including recent legislation in New York and Maryland. Maryland plans to spend $300 million of federal funding from the American Rescue Plan on broadband programs, including infrastructure, subsidies for fees and devices, and grants for municipal broadband. New York state recently announced the 2022 fiscal year budget including a $300 billion infrastructure package that contains broadband subsidies for low-income residents and an emergency fund to provide economically-disadvantaged students with free internet access.

“We’re seeing a shift to address adoption and affordability at both the state and federal level, where previously we only saw discussion of availability,” Siefer said. “It’s not just about unserved and underserved areas when it comes to digital equity, because the infrastructure might be there, but people are not participating in broadband for a variety of reasons,” she said. “Affordability and digital literacy lock people out. New programs aim to solve that problem and get people connected.”

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Digital Inclusion

Starry and Non-Profit PCs for People Seek Affordable Connectivity, Affordable Devices and Digital Literacy

Benjamin Kahn

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Photo of Starry Senior Vice President Virginia Adams from Public Knowledge

March 19, 2021—Broadband provider Starry Inc. and the non-profit group PCs for People launched a joint effort aimed at deploying affordable, robust, broadband coverage alongside discounted computer hardware to families living in public housing in Denver, Colorado.

Starry, a fixed wireless broadband provider based in Boston, Massachusetts, operates in 25 states, including Colorado. PCs for people attempts to improve digital inclusion by helping low-come communities secure low-cost internet access and computers.

The two organizations announced a partnership Tuesday to provide subscribers to Starry’s Connect service a $25 coupon that can be redeemed during the purchase of a computing device from PCs for People.

A study published by Pew Research in 2019 stated that 10 percent of Americans do not use the internet. More than half of that demographic stated that they did not use the internet because securing a connection was too difficult or the cost of doing so was prohibitive.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the issue because students and others who utilized internet through schools or libraries were likely unable to access it during parts of the pandemic.

“In order to truly achieve digital equity and inclusion across our communities, we must bring together three critical components: Affordable connectivity, affordable devices and digital literacy,” said Virginia Lan Abrams, senior vice president of government affairs and strategic advancement for Starry.

Abrams said that the joint venture will be a step towards shortening the digital divide. Without affordable connectivity, affordable devices and digital literacy, the internet has less value to low-income households, she said.

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Digital Inclusion

California Tech Fund Wants to Use Public Private Partnerships to Close Digital Divide

Derek Shumway

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Photo of Sunne Wright McPeak

March 8, 2021 – The California Emerging Technology Fund, a nonprofit foundation focused on digital equity in the state, called on internet service providers and business leaders to form public-private partnerships to close the digital divide under President Joe Biden.

“America can close the Digital Divide in the first term of the Biden Administration if the federal government can encourage Internet Service Providers (ISPs) through strategic investments to build broadband infrastructure in remote rural communities, including Tribal Land communities and improve woefully inadequate networks in high-poverty, densely populated urban neighborhoods,” said CETF CEO Sunne Wright McPeak.

“It is essential that business leaders and major employers support cost-effective solutions and sincere public-private partnerships that require ISPs to step up or step aside,” she said.

CETF CEO McPeak participated in the Broadband Breakfast Live Online ‘Champions of Broadband’ series. See “From the View of the California Emerging Technology Fund, Presidential Leadership Needed on Broadband,” Broadband Breakfast, October 16, 2020

CETF recommends the findings in the U.S. Council on Competitiveness Report, Competing in the Next Economy, which calls for authorizing a federal investment on the order of $100 billion for both broadband deployment and adoption, including digital skills development.

CETF said it commends the Business Roundtable for recognizing the immediate imperative to close the digital divide, which has been exposed by the pandemic as a digital cliff, with families falling off into deeper poverty and greater isolation.

Immediate investment by the federal government in partnership with states will not only address the digital disparities which are rooted in systemic racism, but will also provide a big stimulus to jumpstart economic recovery and will result in significant increases to gross domestic product and relative global economic productivity, the organization said.

However, the federal government should focus on investing its limited resources to support sustainable solutions, the CETF said, urging the Business Roundtable to go further in its call to action to seek “sincere public-private partnerships” instead of providing subsidies to ISPs.

In addition to the call to action, CETF is releasing the Digital Equity Bill of Rights, which describes principles and values developed over 15 years of collaborating with top national and state leaders in government, coupled with on-the-ground partnerships with regional, local and school leaders, civic organizations, business leaders, and several hundred community-based organizations.

CETF policy recommendations also are included in the California Broadband for All Action Plan, which emerged from an executive order by Governor Gavin Newsom to expand high-speed Internet deployment and adoption.

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