Of all the challenges since November, when we began our Knight-funded project, hooking up the Internet was probably the least expected snag. Our project, OpenCourt (formerly Order in the Court 2.0 ), aims to modernize an old-school district courtroom and stream its proceedings live online.
There was so much policy to chisel out. There was the logistical challenge to assemble the myriad of stakeholders necessary to have balanced discussions. Bottom-up site design and development. Content to produce. Community outreach.
Surely any one of these would gobble more focus than a procedure typically taken for granted to be slightly more complicated than ordering a pizza:
"Hello, cable company? I'd like the internet."
When it comes to bandwidth in the U.S., though, not only do consumers generally pay more for less compared to other industrialized nations, but penetration of high-speed services has also recently slowed or halted.
Courthouse Lacks Fiber
Quincy District Courthouse has proven to be a physical intersection of these two phenomenon. A brick behemoth built in 1972, the court has Internet access over its phone lines (DSL), but lacks any cable or fiber running into the building. While this is fine for email and such, two primary components of our project are a live video feed of the court's proceedings and public Wi-Fi for citizen bloggers.
We needed greater bandwidth, particularly on the upstream, and several hurdles blocked our path.
1.) Infrastructure conflict. An enormous project to redevelop Quincy's downtown presented what would be a web of digging permit clashes tangled enough to prohibit, or indefinitely delay, any agreement with a cable company to extend their network to the building.
2.) Excavation moratorium. During the winter, cable companies in Massachusetts are prevented from expanding their networks by digging to lay cable. This introduced a redundant no-no for us, since we already couldn't dig, and even if we could, this moratorium would throw our timeline way off.
3.) Sufficient incentive for cable providers. Even if there weren't a redevelopment project happening (or winter happening), digging to lay cable into a single building simply isn't cost effective for most providers. It's not worth their energy, so they won't do it.
"It's all about profitability,'' said Bruce Leichtman, president and principal analyst with Leichtman Research, in a Boston Globe story last month, highlighting hesitance on Verizon's part to expand its network in the face of uncertainty the investment would not bear a sufficient return.
4.) Consumer cost. Verizon's T1 installation offer to us was ridiculously high. Speakeasy's T1 offer was closer to Earth but still cost-prohibitive. Furthermore, neither provided best-case-scenario bandwidth.
Across all providers, DSL seemed far too great a risk. I think other courts may be able to manage to pull off this kind of project with low upstream bandwidth (768k at best), but I wasn't willing to roll the dice. It was too great a risk for our project, which, while tasked to discover iterable solutions, is also bound to create ideal conditions and push the envelope.
Anyhow, options ran thin. And time. After months of headaches trusting a contractor who promised the moon but couldn't deliver, we eventually tapped Towerstream technicians to install a WiMAX dish on the roof, drill a hole, and run wire three floors down into the basement's telecom closet. We now have a great connection, though for a premium cost ($300+ per month), and a substantial amount of research and effort.
How important is broadband access?
As our culture leans heavier and heavier on the web to help navigate every aspect of our lives, the more such broadband services are considered basic needs.
It occurred to us during and after all of this that courts (and small businesses, and ordinary citizens) shouldn't have to shoulder such burdens of cost and effort.
If you've paid attention to Net neutrality or electronic infrastructure debates in the past decade, you probably know where this argument is headed: Internet access should be treated as a public utility. Budget crisis or no, it's important to keep this idea alive.
Consider how the interstate highway system was built on the foundation of the Federal government's $25 billion backing in 1956, and continues to be funded mostly by gasoline and vehicle taxes. Granted it's one of the largest public works projects in history, but the value was and is undeniable.
A Public Good
Vast public good comes with interconnectedness. We recognized that more than 50 years ago with highways. That we have yet to support equally bold network infrastructure upgrades is less of a budget issue than it is a failure to imagine what the Internet is and what it could become.
Left to the devices of the private sector alone, lower-income areas will be neglected while wired and wireless carriers continue to concentrate on wealthier regions to optimize profit margins. In this way, not extending full access to all areas will only help widen the digital class divide.
Perhaps we could learn a thing or two from Quincy's $1.3 billion public / private redevelopment partnership, wherein Street Works shoulders significant debt assuming future tax dollars will recoup the investment.
Particularly as the web involves more video, application developers must assume the user to have a center-of-the-bell-curve amount of bandwidth. Because the Internet is where the American conversation is happening, the disparity between the top and bottom of that graph will be emblematic of our democratic strength. By modern definition, the underserved will have a quieter voice.