Should States Fund Citizen Tech Programs?

Just what is state and local governments' role in ensuring that citizens have access to the latest communications and computing tools? That's one of the questions that Jane Leonard, the community development manager for Minnesota's fledgling Office of Technology, is trying hard to answer.

In largely rural Minnesota, the idea of state support for citizen technology programs has economic and political weight. Without it, Minnesota's rural or poorer citizens might be disenfranchised, at least technologically speaking. "It's imperative that some communities embrace technology, or they will get passed by just like some got passed by in the '50s and '60s," Leonard said. "The state government has a role in finding what is out there and what the gaps are."

Leonard has already started thinking about ways to fill in the gaps. One idea: fostering a network of community "telecenters," equipped with Internet terminals and computers, where citizens could touch and use the latest technology tools. Some centers might be full-service; others might be focused on one application. Some might be strictly commercial. "I live in St. Paul," she said. "We have Kinko's on just about every corner. It has become a telecenter that is privately operated."

Having a physical location where people can congregate to access technology has merit, Leonard argues, especially in small towns far from the state's main business and communications centers. "The post office in many small towns is a place where people congregate," she said. "Rural delivery is a great service, but it's also something that separates people."

While state and local government funding for such projects is scarce, it does exist. In Grand Rapids, Minn., for example, three city and county government organizations - School District 318, the Itasca County Human Services Department and the Grand Rapids Public Library - collaborated to launch GrandNet, a community network designed to provide educational and child health care information across the county's sprawling 2,000-square-mile school district. Initial funding was provided through a county education bond.Once some seed money is provided, such projects can start to snowball. In Grand Rapids, the local bond money was matched by a federal grant. Then other civic and commercial entities - including the Itasca Regional Net (IRNet), which would provide community access to the Internet - expressed interest in plugging into the network. Eventually, the two may become one.

"We may blend them eventually," said Frank Allen, president of Itasca Development Corp. "While they are different, we are trying to look at the community as a whole. Many of the same people are already involved, and there would be a goal of no political subdivisions or artificial boundaries in terms of community development."

Straight to Uncle Sam

If no state or local money is available, smaller government organizations and civic groups have the option of going straight to the federal government for start-up money. Each year, the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) distributes millions of dollars in matching grants to communities trying to launch such programs.

"There is a tremendous variety of ways things get started and the organizations that drive them," said Steve Downs, NTIA's acting director for the grant program. "In different communities, there are different drivers and different organizations that will take the first steps in getting people organized."

Charlotte, N.C., is perhaps the closest to a textbook example of the way a community network gets launched, according to Downs. "There the library was the driver," he said. "They said that, as a library, our mission goes beyond the traditional things we do. We need to play a specific role in bringing service to more people."

Often individual citizens are the catalysts. Before Charlotte's networking program - called Charlotte's Web - became a fixture in the library, it was the brainchild of Steve Snow, a former journalist who pitched the idea to various city officials. "We got started with a bunch of citizens that decided this was something we could do in the community," Snow said. "We shopped around and got our fingers pinched in a lot of doors by people who were not charged up about what we were doing.

"Then we went to our community college and local library. Both were interested, but the public library had more financial resources, so we located ourselves there and aligned ourselves with them fiscally," Snow said.

Those looking to start a telecenter or community network should be mindful of the long run, Downs cautions. "Communities should be thinking about what sort of resources are needed to develop and maintain a system - the expertise to pull it off technologically. One thing about networks is that they have the potential to grow very fast, and one needs to be prepared for the technology changes that will occur along the way."

Downs offered some advice for those looking to start a network: "In your particular community, find out who has the resources or expertise to play a central role. Often it is the schools or a strong public library," he said. "Somebody made a comment once that you have to find the stones that roll. Don't push on the people who don't get it - who aren't ready to jump on."

Locating such resources may be yet another role state and local governments can play. "We are trying to set up a clearinghouse of experience," Minnesota's Leonard said. "These resources exist, but they are not generally lifted up and showcased for people. I've spent the last few months talking with organizations like libraries, educational institutions and telecom providers. Everyone is excited that there is a focal point in the state."

Added Leonard, who has learned a lot about how community networks get started: "The most important thing is to have a starting point. Call a meeting. Task forces have led to projects like Grand Rapids, where people lay their cards on the table. People in the communities tend to find that they have a common goal but many pathways to reaching [it]."

Jennifer Jones is a free-lance writer based in Arlington, Va.

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