What's Meant By Digital Inclusion? An Interrogation of Municipal Broadband Policy in San Francisco
Seeta Peña Gangadharan, Stanford University
In his first State of the City address, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom set high expectations for wi-fi, asserting that "[W]e will not stop until every San Franciscan has access to free wireless internet services. No San Franciscan should be without a computer and a broadband connection."
Stanford Ph.D Candidate Seeta Peña Gangadharan worked with activist group Media Alliance to examine the city's efforts to develop a "digital inclusion" strategy in the context of its highly-publicized municipal wi-fi build out planning. Gangadharan found that, despite the frequent evocation of digital inclusion by most of the parties, the city never articulated an effective strategy for making wireless internet not only available but also meaningful to city residents, especially those with little or no access to technology or an internet connection.
As part of this work, Media Alliance and Gangadharan drew lessons learned from the San Francisco case and produced a "Digital Inclusion Advocacy Toolkit" to support other communities and groups involved in discussions with municipal governments about how to develop inclusive and effective access to the internet.
Gangadharan examined key debates about the scope and impact of the project, beginning in 2003 with the early explorations of the broadband development, and ending in 2006 when the city selected Earthlink and Google as vendors to build and deploy the wireless infrastructure throughout San Francisco. Identifying three distinct periods in the lead-up to selecting Earthlink and Google, Gangadharan analyzed public hearings, meeting minutes, listserv discussions, and more to discover different approaches and priorities in municipal broadband. Prior to the mayor's announcement, community advocates, many of them affiliated with Media Alliance's Internet 4 Everyone campaign, recognized the limitations of the existing access policies and identified the importance of assessing the access and technology needs of underserved communities.
The term "digital inclusion" was introduced during the second phase, as the city committed to broadening the definition of ‘access’ to encompass activities designed to foster greater personal agency and civic engagement. Much of the subsequent official rationale for the wireless project was built around this goal. Despite the efforts of community advocates to flesh out this framework, however, the concept remained largely rhetorical: even as the city opened its bidding process to select a vendor, it lacked a clear vision and implementation strategy for digital inclusion.
This account of that history reinforces the growing body of scholarship that recognizes the importance of social context—not just technological capacities—when developing and deploying broadband policies. More broadly, the discursive conflicts of San Francisco's much watched wi-fi project offers lessons for digital inclusion plans in the more than three hundred other municipal broadband deployments underway in cities, towns, and counties across the United States. This is a formative moment in broader public understanding of equity in relation to the technological landscape.
The study's companion publication, the "Digital Inclusion Toolkit," produced by Media Alliance, involves translating the research findings for practitioners and helping community advocates advance digital inclusion policies in other municipal broadband projects. The toolkit is as an accessible, practical guide for community-based organizations and public interest advocates who wish to engage in municipal wireless activism.
The toolkit documents ways for advocates to work with both city officials and members of the community to develop coherent and implementable visions of digital inclusion—drawing heavily on and generalizing from the experience of the Internet 4 Everyone campaign. The toolkit is distributed for free-both online and offline-to Media Alliance's partners and allies in California and throughout the country.
This dissemination is intended to leverage the experiences of Internet 4 Everyone participants in San Francisco and bolster the work of advocates in other cities and regions, as they continue to fight for universal, low-cost, high-speed Internet access, equipment, training, and content for their communities. Already, the toolkit has been distributed to and downloaded by media activists and community advocates working in communities in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. It will also be used in the upcoming Digital Inclusion Summit (Spring 2008) and is currently being adapted for training curriculum in Media Alliance's broadband work in the Bay Area and parts of California.
Available for download from the Media Research Hub:
A SPIN 2008 toolkit to help media activists develop and successfully execute their own communications campaigns from the ground up, including a chapter by Seeta Peña Gangadharan on “Proof Positive: How Researcher/Activist Collaborations Can Build Your Case for Change.”