Humboldt County's general plan should include bold communications advances

by Sean McLaughlin, Times-Standard

If local visionaries have their way, Humboldt County's General Plan will include a new Communications Element focusing on fundamental policies to develop local communications infrastructure and services to meet local needs.

In the General Plan, the county could create a policy framework to support local broadband media for the next generation. With clear vision in the plan, future networks will better serve public safety, health, education, civic engagement, economic development and other community purposes.

First, the county's General Plan must affirm that communication is an essential human need, a fundamental human right and the basis of individual and societal development, essential to ensure liberty and justice for all.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19, states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The Knight Commission report Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age (2009) offers three essential recommendations that should be adopted as goals in Humboldt's General Plan:

1. Maximizing the availability of relevant and credible information: People need relevant and credible information to be free and self-governing.

2. Enhancing the information and communications capacity of individuals:

People need tools, skills, and understanding to use information effectively.

3. Promoting public engagement: To pursue their true interests, people need to be engaged with information and with each other.

To reach these goals, the General Plan should endorse five important principles: ensuring universal access; supporting digital literacy; preserving net neutrality; protecting the right to privacy and planning for balance in future capacity.

To ensure universal access, local policies must address the human impact -- the opportunity for all people, regardless of their digital skills, geographical and socio-economic situation, to create and to share information useful for their own life plans. Achieving this requires access on many fronts: infrastructure; affordability; public availability; workplace availability; multi-cultural, multi-language and multi-ability access and mobile access.

What does this mean in practice? Broadband network deployments must provide capacity that will enable people to connect for meaningful communication -- regardless of where they live. Communications networks, including rules, pricing, fees and taxes, must make access affordable for all income levels. To meet local needs, communities should provide public access points at community anchor facilities (libraries, community centers, clinics, schools, post offices, media centers and other public facilities). Additionally, workplace access supports economic development and is especially important for people without access at home.

Communications services must further encourage cultural and linguistic diversity and simplify the exchange of information across languages, in addition to permitting young and aging people and those with disabilities access to local communications resources.

To ensure the future of universal access, it is crucial to keep in mind that mobile phone use is surpassing that of the Internet and of wireline connections. Clearly, spectrum policy, including local planning and implementation, will be of critical importance to the development of local communications capacity.

In addition to access, digital media literacy is a critical component of public education, information, outreach and workforce development. The county must be engaged with local, state and tribal governments, community-based organizations and private sector entities to develop and promote free or low-cost training opportunities supporting digital inclusion.

Of course, digital literacy is less useful without net neutrality. In 2005, the FCC adopted four principles to encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet (FCC 05-151). According to these principles, people are entitled to access lawful Internet content of their choice; run applications and use services of their choice (subject to needs of law enforcement); connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network and choose between multiple network providers, application and service providers and content providers.

Humboldt County should actively support these principles and enforce network neutrality rules and laws mandating the equal treatment of all communication on platforms it provides consistent with these FCC principles.

The freedom to hold opinions without interference isn't possible without safeguards to protect privacy. All members of the community must be protected from government and corporate surveillance. The right to privacy includes personal data protection and communications privacy, including the security and privacy of mail, phone and e-mail communication.

Future networks must make it as easy to distribute information content as it is to consume. That means that speed standards for broadband network access must consider both upload and download rates and upload speeds must be given special priority to ensure full participation by least-served communities.

Standards for broadband capacity are rapidly changing -- so it's important not to get locked into obsolete technology goals. The General Plan must promote building networks that offer high-quality service with the reliability and the functionality to meet the service and application needs of our communications future.

The Internet is a global public infrastructure. Local communication networks must support open fast connections to the backbone of the Internet globally, at speeds that go beyond the past and current frontiers of communication and commerce.

NOTE: This column is based in large part on work done by Access Humboldt, Main Street Project, Media Mobilizing Project and other community-based organizations at meetings hosted by the Media and Democracy Coalition in Washington, DC.

article originally published at Times-Standard.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey