C-Level View | Feature

It Takes A Community

Influencing our broadband future is up to us, with the help of visionary leaders

We're all pretty thoroughly habituated to working with Internet-enabled technologies--tools we rely on daily to get our work done and in some sense just to be able to function at all in a connected society. But most of us probably only realize how important this connectivity is to us when there's a crippling outage--even just a few minutes of down time can really rattle our cages.

Still, there's good reason to step back--even when things are ticking along smoothly--and examine where we really stand in the world of broadband technologies. As comfortable as we might be when things seem to be working, there are visionary leaders who are reminding us that we could do better.

Susan Crawford is one such leader. Crawford, who is being recognized with the inaugural OneCommunity Broadband Hero Award on September 18, 2013, is an outspoken advocate for broadband equality and for the kind of leadership that promotes better use of broadband technology to achieve community goals. Crawford, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, is a visionary who will point out the gaps many of us don't notice, though they surround us:

"Imagine a world in which the capacity to communicate electronically is unlimited, everywhere, inexpensive, and available all the time. Imagine seeing the people in your life whenever you both want to, in a way that makes them feel present to you even though they're not actually there. Imagine being able to get a world-class education, visit a medical specialist, or collaborate on an enormous work project across seamless, effortless communications links. That's the world of fiber; thin glass rods, narrower than human hairs, spanning countries and connecting directly into houses, lit from within by pulsing lights and carrying unlimited amounts of information. And that's the world Americans aren't in…

"Although we like to think of ourselves as ahead of everyone else when it comes to technology, that's not at all true in the world of communications. The U.S. is somewhere in the middle of the pack of developed nations when it comes to high-speed Internet access, and falling farther behind all the time. But that sounds wonky and distant. This growing gap will have deep human impacts on life in our country, which is already deeply divided internally between the two-thirds of Americans who have Internet access at home and the rest (mostly poorer and rural populations) who do not…

"There is nothing more essentially human than the need to communicate; full-bandwidth communication, being present to each other, is necessary to being alive. We should be entering an era of electronic presence that eliminates distance and enables rich personal and social interactions accompanied by almost-real visuals. The difference between this kind of connectivity and the kind even affluent Americans have is as great as the difference between a house with electricity and a house without it. It's hard to describe in words."

But Susan Crawford (quoted above) does have the words to describe these gaps, and is most articulate and generous in helping our communities understand broadband issues as well as opportunities. Her book, Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age (Yale University Press, 2013), is one place to begin to follow her thinking. She has several community appointments, including one to Mayor Bloomberg's Council on Technology and Innovation, she is a columnist for Wired, and she was named one of TIME Magazine's "Tech 40: The Most Influential Minds in Tech" (2013).

There are so many opportunities for higher education institutions to have an impact on the wider community and on our broadband future. And higher education technology leadership can take some cues from such visionary leaders as Susan Crawford, and Lev Gonick, a familiar higher education technology visionary who left his VP/CIO post at Case Western Reserve University this past June to lead OneCommunity full time.

Crawford observes: "Lev Gonick is a superlative civic leader who is making waves in the world of high-capacity Internet connections, and I'm very proud indeed to be honored by Lev and OneCommunity."

When visionaries like these come together, stay tuned!

About the Author

Mary Grush is Editor and Conference Program Director, Campus Technology.

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