Alaskan Sustainable Community Technology Centers
By Frank Odasz
Once Internet infrastructure is achieved, whose responsibility is it to assure that ongoing community learning programs (info-structure) are available to reach out and assure that citizens will develop new skills to stay current amid the accelerating change of the modern day?
Weighing the Infrastructure Issues An Overview
Paying an Outside Provider
Most villages with Internet access pay a telecommunications provider and their dollars leave the village. There may be little or no interest by the provider in helping initiate community or educational learning about the Internet and through the Internet.
From a strictly profit-driven business standpoint, if the provided Internet is underutilized then the company can resell the unused bandwidth again and again. From a profit standpoint it may not make business sense to encourage use of the provided Internet. However, as telecommunications providers begin to initiate home-based Internet services this may change somewhat as their profit may be determined by how many citizens become motivated to purchase home access services by seeing demonstrations of home-based Internet applications.
On the other hand perhaps we can learn a lesson from America Onlines business strategy which has been to promote email, chat, shopping, and entertainment features without referencing the unlimited self-directed learning, rural Ecommerce, and other empowering opportunities.
Paying a Local Mom and Pop Internet Provider
An emerging model is for a local person or couple to create a business providing local Internet access to provide home-based wireless services as well as to vend services to the school and health organizations which have government subsidies such as E-rate. Such a business would have a direct incentive to provide community Internet training opportunities as well as ongoing friendly technical support.
With this model the dollars stay in the village and the village literally has ownership in the issues surrounding Internet distribution and use. Such a model might be based on 2-way satellite systems with high speed wireless distribution. An Internet Café might be provided as a social gathering place for community training. Community mentors and trainers would be developed from the local citizenry. Ideally, the greatest benefits of Internet will be routinely identified and shared broadly.
Sustainable Community Technology Centers.
If initial funding is available for computers to establish a community technology center or Internet café, then the key issue becomes sustainability. If a local ISP is the sponsor then local sustainability is already initially supported. As local awareness of computer and Internet applications grow, citizens will be able to create a wide range of additional services - all of which could support the center through related fees. Kinkos is a reasonable model to consider. Citizens could pay citizens to develop web pages, digital art and photos, Ecommerce web sites, multimedia presentations and documents and more.
The key to creating a sustainable center is to quickly demonstrate the widest possible range of revenue-generating services and to serve as a business incubator teaching citizens how to provide technology-related for-profit services both locally and globally.
Village Area Networks
Most people think of Internet technology as a conduit to the information of the world, and as a way to promote web pages hosting local products and services for sale. Yet, there is another important application that is often missed in the rush to virtually leave the village.
A Village Area Network (VAN) can be kept separate from the Internet as a private local network for sharing between homes and local organizations. While 2-way satellite systems have definite limitations regarding the speed of Internet access delivered, local wireless networks (ll megabit and faster) can be very high speed without additional cost. This creates the opportunity for local 2-way video between homes and many other advanced multimedia communications options featuring safety, privacy, and a cultural emphasis.
Maintaining a Managed Content Hub Without Internet Access
If a village is beyond the range of satellite delivered Internet it is possible to create a VAN with literally thousands of preselected web pages to be used for community learning. One of the biggest problems with the Internet is that there is so much information available many citizens feel overwhelmed. Careful preselection of the best resources could provide a village with the best web-based resources relevant to local needs and training purposes. Such a system could even exchange email messages and host Ecommerce web sites via CDROMs exchanged daily through the postal service and coordination with someone on the outside.
Maintaining a Managed Content Hub With Internet Access
Satellite Internet has limitations in speed while local wireless networks allow for very high speed access. Caching technologies allow for storing locally huge amounts of information such as the last thousand web pages accessed, or preselected collections of the best resources relevant to local needs and training purposes. Such collections could be routinely updated with current information during the night when local Internet use is at a minimum. For example, all the state government, health, and education sites could be instantly available locally at high speed.
Remotely Mentored Technical Maintenance and Distance Learning
New software capabilities allow for remote control of local computers as well as two-way Internet phone conversations to support local citizens in managing the technical maintenance of satellite and wireless systems. This same type of software has dramatic distance learning applications with live one-to-one audio and video mentoring opportunities.
As these types of systems evolve, all villages will need help to keep current on their best options for Internet system cost/performance, optimized technical maintenance, and distance learning tools and skills.
Providing for-profit distance learning services globally is a distinct opportunity for local citizens and these skills can be taught locally via distance learning from worldwide sources of expertise.
It is difficult for state and village leaders to keep up with ongoing technical advancements and to truly understand what is possible delivering to people the specific information they need on a regular basis. Beyond simple infrastructure, we need to develop a new form of info-structure at all levels to keep us all up-to-date in a world of accelerating change.
Needed are pilot projects to generate success stories to inform Alaskan leaders and citizens regarding the best technical and economic models as well as the best citizen involvement and training strategies proven to produce both ongoing motivation and measurable outcomes. Whose responsibility is it to make sure this happens?
Community Internet Training Models in Remote Villages
Is community Internet training the responsibility of the telecommunications provider?
The major telecommunications providers have been able to leverage E-rate funding to bring Internet access via satellite to many Alaskan villages but with a prohibition against using it for two of the greatest needs: home access and Ecommerce. The telecommunications providers do not typically provide community training opportunities beyond the schools need for local technical maintenance. The recent E-rate waiver has severe limitations which continue to restrict home and Ecommerce applications. As noted above, there may be no profit incentive to provide or encourage training.
Is community Internet training the responsibility of the school
or school district?
Though high costs for Internet access have been paid, there has been minimal investment in ongoing training for educators. The recommended rule of thumb is to invest one dollar for training for every dollar spent for infrastructure. However, this is rarely the case. As a direct result of minimal training - most of the Internet access goes unutilized and only the most elementary applications of Internet are routinely used: email and occasional searching/browsing.
After a long day of teaching, few teachers are willing to spend their evenings keeping the school computer labs open for community access and learning. Typically, most communities are locked out of the opportunities for after-school computer lab access and training.
Is community Internet training the responsibility of the local community organizations?
Most community organization leaders have minimal knowledge regarding what the Internet can offer and their options for connectivity. Informed leaders are few.
The need exists to educate community leaders on the best potential benefits the Internet can bring to a village and all their options for connectivity, particularly where sharing costs brings economies of scale. Who will meet this need is the big question a question of leadership!
NOTE: If the Alaskan Federation of Natives Technet group can create summative reviews of all the available providers for comparison purposes, this would be invaluable!
Is community Internet training the responsibility of the state or federal government, foundations, and/or Native organizations?
In question is what do leaders at any level really know about what the Internet can truly offer and specifically what type of training has been proven to empower communities?
Surely someone in the above listings bears the solemn responsibility to research in detail what validated empowerment can be derived from Internet access at the various levels of access and cost. While solutions exist, progress is severely limited due to minimal real understanding on concrete applications by the highest tiers of state leaders as well as local leaders.
While those in charge of locally maintaining networks may need to learn specific technical skills, most citizens need to learn how to use these networks to create social and economic value and collaborative capacity.
The expertise of community and state leaders to evaluate community and Ecommerce training programs does not yet exist and needs to be seriously developed.
Real leadership is needed creating replicable community models for rapid widespread citizen involvement with measurable outcomes - and everyone needs to get involved.
It Takes a Village to Raise a Child?
As initial awareness of the full range of potential Internet benefits grows, it becomes the responsibility of all local citizens to learn how to use the Internet to make their family, community, and culture sustainable. Parents and the community need to show support to their children for learning Internet empowerment skills as these skills may well determine the future sustainability of their communities.
Grant Template is available at http://lone-eagles.com/northstar.htm with extensive other related resources listed at Alaskan Village