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March 22, 2008

Renewed Hope for Wireless Cities

The New York Times is the latest to declare the demise of muni-wireless: 2005-2007 RIP. It's time to stop flogging a dead horse.

Enter the phoenix. Like the mythical bird that never dies, the pursuit of universal broadband access is the spirit that continues to inspire.

This week, a nearly unprecedented* coalition of community leaders in Broward County, Florida issued a bold and exciting RFI for a private-public partnership to build out more than 1,000 sq miles of ultra broadband connectivity including fixed and wireless to interconnect the entire region. Members of the OneBroward initiative include the County, most of the major higher education institutions, the Broward County Schools, two major Health Care systems, and the County Sheriff's office. Together, OneBroward's partners bring impressive technological and human resource assets to the table touching significant portions of the geography of the County and most of the education, civic, safety, and health care players who have been working together for nearly four years. In her covering letter to some 50 prospective private sector partners, Dr. Phyllis Schiffer-Simon noted the goal of the newly formed OneBroward non-profit was to leverage a commonly built and managed advanced broadband services platform to attend to community priorities. "Through our innovative joint solution process, we intend to identify potential long-term partners to work with the OneBroward organization to jointly develop, design, monitor, support, maintain and enhance OneBroward’s initiative, to provide value-add applications and tiered wire and wireless services to the public institutions and citizens of Broward County, while reducing overall costs to the Consortium."

The RFI, as a product of the work of the community thought leaders, reflects a level of technical sophistication combined with a breadth and depth of community engagement rarely seen since the hype of 'free muni-wireless' movement emanating from City Halls smothered the hard work needed to build coalitions of community interests to architect layered network services strategies to enable a broadband future.

My colleague, Sascha Meinrath is quoted in today's NYTimes article suggesting that “The entire for-profit model is the reason for the collapse in all these projects.” Sascha Meinrath is now an important technology analyst and contributor at the New America Foundation, a nonprofit research organization in Washington. Sascha's world view is more complex than the reductionist and headline-grabbing sound bite. Whether he would agree entirely, or not, the reality is that equally problematic has been the nearly myopic and out-moded 20th century view that City Hall could or should own, operate, or maintain a monopoly 21st century internet utility like its hold on 20th century infrastructure such as water, power, and electrical services. As quick as we are to cast choices as being binary between private OR public-led initiatives, the OneBroward initiative suggests a very different sensibility. The "third-way", as outlined in the RFI calls for a joint solution partnership between this coalition reflecting the bedrock of South Florida's public and non-profit community and what one can only anticipate will be an equally diverse and forward-thinking coalition of private sector partners committed to helping re-imagine and then re-invent the meaning of connected urban development in America focusing on citizenship services, learning, health, skills development, and economic development.

OneBroward is among the first of a new generation of cross-boundary, portfolio-managed approaches to connected community building efforts. Important consensus building and visioning is well underway in multiple communities through out South Florida. In the near future, I think there is a strong possibility that other communities will embrace this "third way" as a way to help imagine a future in their own image in which community priorities are addressed leveraging advanced technology in a bold project owned by the community itself.
Universal broadband access is an important part, no, an imperative for 21st century democratic societies. It just turns out that it's a bit more complicated to achieve than signing a contract.

Lev Gonick
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland, Ohio
March 22, 2008

* Disclosure: Lev Gonick is the founder and now President Emeritus of OneCleveland now known as OneCommunity. Along with my friend Cathy Horton from Beta Strategies we have been working with a growing number of communities around the country (and now in South Africa and the UK), including OneBroward. As I have noted in writing and speeches around the world for more than 5 years, great Universities have an important contribution to make to the long term health and viability of the cities within which our institutions are founded. The contribution of Florida Atlantic University, Nova Southwestern, and Broward County Community Colleges along with the inspired leadership of Phyllis Shiffer-Simon continue to underscore the important contribution of education institutions to the future of cities in America.

Posted by lsg8 at March 22, 2008 03:19 PM and tagged

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