Digital divide includes civic participation
April 14, 2020 — The ban on public gatherings has already had profound effects on crime, the economy, mental health, and education. But there’s another aspect of public business that a lot of the public is missing out on.
Rick Childs called in to the Board of Supervisors meeting last week to offer a comment on the main topic of discussion right now. He finally got three minutes, after lunch, to ask the board to take a broader view of public health, to consider stress and unemployment and morale in addition to the coronavirus.
Childs was one of four people who managed to get through in the new system where everyone is forced to conduct their business remotely. The online agenda says clerk of the Board staff “are currently exploring several options to see what will work best to suit our County’s civic engagement needs.” Emailing the board has been an option since well before the pandemic, and now you can fill out a form on the agendas and minutes page of the Board of Supervisors website if you want to receive further instructions on how to call into the zoom meeting and offer a comment orally.
But Ellen Drell, of the Willits Environmental Center, said the process was confusing. She tried unsuccessfully to get through last week, mostly to test the system. She’s really interested in a Planning Commission meeting this Thursday. Now, she’s worried that the only way to participate is through the internet, using a process that is “awkward and untested.”
The agenda for the April 16 Planning Commission meeting includes a request to build a 143-foot tall wireless communications tower about five miles southeast of the Willits City Center, on Pine Mountain. So far, thirty-two public comments have been sent in, some including petitions with dozens of signatures both for and against the project. Drell and other environmentalists are opposed, citing health and safety concerns about 5G technology, while the Little Lake Fire Protection District and some other neighbors support it, saying safety will be enhanced by redundancy in the communications system. Several letters also requested that the item be postponed, since it would be difficult or impossible for members of the public to share their concerns adequately.
In another nuance to the digital divide, Drell is an internet skeptic. “We live in an area that is generally free of heavy-duty electromagnetic radiation, and I’d like to keep it that way,” she said, adding that the new model, where public participation in local government affairs is only possible virtually, reminds her of “the early decades of the country, when it was only the propertied males that could vote. We’re sort of seeing a situation like that now, where it’s only those with the knowledge and the economic ability to have costly infrastructure in their homes, can they participate in the public process.”
Jeff Tyrell would like to change that, or at least bring better internet to more people. Tyrell is the administrator of the Broadband Alliance of Mendocino County, a ten-year-old grassroots organization that’s funded by the Community Foundation’s broadband development fund and works with a regional consortium trying to close the digital divide in rural northern California. But even with all his savvy and a high-end internet plan, Tyrell, who lives in Comptche, is on the wrong side of the digital divide. “I am at the end of a long copper line,” he notes, and his only internet option is satellite. He has the “Cadillac” plan now, which is theoretically unlimited, but at the lower tier, which was still not cheap, he’d have to strategize how much and how many local government meetings he watched, and forego his evening’s entertainment. One Board of Supervisors meeting would eat up his entire week’s allotment of streaming.
In the early days of the internet, the promise was that everyone would have access to all the information they needed. And the Broadband Alliance has always said that better internet would open up economic opportunities to people who might otherwise have to rely on low wage seasonal work. Now, in this season of pandemic, the Alliance is submitting years of data to the California Advanced Services Fund, to build a fiber optic loop up the 101 corridor from Hopland to Laytonville, and from there to Covelo. Tyrell says the plan would “provide internet to thousands of homes in that region, and be a building block for more buildout.” The three-phased plan for building out the underground fiber optic loop includes going over Branscomb Road from Laytonville to Fort Bragg to Boonville, and then on to Ukiah. The Alliance should find out in November if it gets the grant, though the deadline for applications has already been extended, and uncertainty is the order of things right now.
In the meantime, Drell says she is thinking of one particular elderly gentleman, who “just doesn’t do computers,” and can’t even type a letter. “And yet he’s desperately interested and had counted on showing up at the meeting and speaking,” she said. “And he’ll be lost. His voice will be lost.”