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Digital Inclusion

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 Frank@lone-eagles.com.

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

Digital Inclusion

Broadband Breakfast Interview With Michael Baker’s Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel

Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the bipartisan infrastructure law.

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Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment grant program under the bipartisan infrastructure law.

In this interview with Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark, Michael Baker International Broadband Planning Consultants Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel go into detail about the role of Digital Equity Act plans in state broadband programs.

Michael Baker International, a leading provider of engineering and consulting services, including geospatial, design, planning, architectural, environmental, construction and program management, has been solving the world’s most complex challenges for over 80 years.

Its legacy of expertise, experience, innovation and integrity is proving essential in helping numerous federal, state and local navigate their broadband programs with the goal of solving the Digital Divide.

The broadband team at Michael Baker is filling a need that has existed since the internet became publicly available. Essentially, Internet Service Providers have historically made expansions to new areas based on profitability, not actual need. And pricing has been determined by market competition without real concern for those who cannot afford service.

In the video interview, Snerling and Garfinkel discuss how, with Michael Baker’s help, the federal government is encourage more equitable internet expansion through specific programs under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The company guides clients to incorporate all considerations, not just profitability, into the project: Compliance with new policies, societal impact metrics and sustainability plans are baked into the Michael Baker consultant solution so that, over time, these projects will have a tremendous positive impact.

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Digital Inclusion

Historically Underrepresented Communities Urged to Take Advantage of BEAD Planning

BEAD requirements a unique opportunity for underrepresented communities to be involved in broadband builds.

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Photo of Mara Reardon, NTIA’s deputy director of public engagement

WASHINGTON, January 25, 2023 – Underrepresented communities are being urged to take advantage of the opportunity brought by the billions in funding coming from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration by actively planning for the money being allocated by June 30.

The $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program is a unique opportunity for historically underrepresented communities to be heard in critical digital equity conversations, said experts at a United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce event Tuesday.

“For once, they are being included in the implementation process,” said Mara Reardon, the NTIA’s deputy director of public engagement, adding this is a “unique opportunity.” It is essential that communities take advantage of this by approaching state broadband offices, drafting broadband expansion plans, and showing up in commenting processes, Reardon urged.

Furthermore, historically underrepresented communities can make themselves available as contractors by subscribing to state mailing lists, being aware of requests going out, and participating in the state bidding process, said Reardon.

The notice of funding outlines several requirements for inclusion of historically underrepresented groups in the planning process, Reardon reiterated. Specifically, it mandates that eligible entities include underrepresented stakeholders in the process of developing their required five-year plans. This type of requirement is unique to federal infrastructure grants, said Reardon.

Due to the nature of the grant requirements, states must take necessary affirmative steps to ensure diverse groups are used in contracting and planning, added Lynn Follansbee of telecom trade association USTelecom. This means that projects will be outsourced to various providers and suppliers and that the work will be broken into pieces to involve as many groups as possible, said Follansbee.

The NTIA is making an effort to ensure that all community members are heard in critical issues, even establishing the office of public engagement for that purpose. It also said it has awarded $304 million in planning grants for broadband infrastructure builds to all states and Washington D.C. by the end of 2022.

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Digital Inclusion

CES 2023: Congressional Oversight, Digital Equity Priorities for New Mexico Senator

Sen. Lujan once again voiced concern that the FCC’s national broadband map contains major inaccuracies.

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Photo of Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., in February 2018 by Keith Mellnick used with permission

LAS VEGAS, January 6, 2023 – Sen. Ben Ray Lujan on Friday endorsed “oversight at every level” of executive agencies’ broadband policies and decried service providers that perpetuate digital inequities.

Lujan appeared before an audience at the Consumer Electronics Show with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., to preview the tech-policy priorities of the 118th Congress.

Among Washington legislators, Senators had CES 2023 to themselves: Representatives from the House of Representatives were stuck in Washington participating on Friday in the 12th, 13th and 14th votes for House Speaker.

Congress allocated $65 billion to broadband projects in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, the bulk of which, housed in the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, is yet to be disbursed. The IIJA funds are primarily for infrastructure, but billions are also available for digital equity and affordability projects.

Several federal legislators, including Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., have called for close supervision of Washington’s multitude of broadband-related programs. At CES on Friday, Warner argued that previous tranches of broadband funding have been poorly administered, and Lujan once again voiced concern that the Federal Communications Commission’s national broadband map, whose data will be used to allocate BEAD funds, contains major inaccuracies.

Affordable, high-speed broadband is now a necessity, stated Warner. Lujan argued that policy must crafted to ensure all communities have access to connectivity.

“The [Federal Communications Commission] is working on some of the digital equity definitions right now…. I don’t want to see definitions that create loopholes that people can hide behind to not connect communities,” the New Mexico senator said, emphasizing the importance of “the digital literacy to be able take advantage of what this new connection means, so that people can take advantage of what I saw today [at CES].”

At a Senate hearing in December, Lujan grilled executives from industry trade associations over allegations of digital discrimination.

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