Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Arlene Krebs (Part 2 of 2)

September 8, 2020

This is the second part of a two-part interview conducted with Arlene Krebs, a ShapingEDU colleague who is consulting in the arts, education, and technology and was honored as a California Broadband Champion in 2014. Arlene and I serve together as members of the organizing committee for ShapingEDU’s “Connecting for Work and Learning: Universal Broadband Access in the United States” initiative. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

Let’s stay on Loaves, Fishes and Computers for a moment. What role did you play in establishing/nurturing it?

I have worked hand-in-hand with the Founder and Executive Director [Christian Mendelsohn]. He came to my University office in 2011 to ask for advice on funding and grant writing. (I am the author of four editions of The Distance Learning Funding $ourcebook: A Guide to Foundation, Corporate & Government Support for Telecommunications and the New Media—last edition was 2000, so you can see the “old” references to new media). So, Christian asked for my help. I began with the first Board of Directors—I have served on nonprofit boards for 40 years now—and I began grantwriting for LFC. Since 2011, I’ve helped bring in nearly $700,000 in funds to support his organization, which has kept it afloat. Since SIP [sheltering in place during the coronavirus pandemic], we’ve distributed over 1,500 computers to those in need—low-income families, seniors, individuals, veterans, people with disabilities. I just completed eight grant applications for Loaves, Fishes & Computers, totaling $149,500 in requests for our work, of which we’ve heard from two funding agencies, awarding us $50,000 (our request and its maximum allotment) to distribute even more computers.

Another aspect concerns my work with the Central Coast Broadband Consortium—which I helped to found—and, being part of the statewide initiatives to close the digital divide, and the resulting grant opportunities through California’s Public Utilities Commission and also the state’s Broadband Council.

So many lovely threads to follow here. Let’s take this down to an individual level. Would you mind telling a success story in terms of how Loaves, Fishes, and Computers affected one participant or one participant’s family?

Hold on: I will cut and paste a recipient’s testimonial.

Fantastic! Thanks. I do want to get us to the current situation and how it’s giving us opportunities, but first want to get back to the Central Coast Broadband Consortium connection.  “When people want to find out what’s happening on broadband in Monterey County, they call Krebs,” CETF [California Emerging Technology Fund] President and CEO Sunne Wright McPeak wrote when you were recognized as a Broadband Champion in 2014. What were some of the most rewarding experiences you had that led to that level of recognition among your peers?

Founding the Wireless Education & Technology Center, organizing the Wireless Community & Mobile Users Conference more or less annually from 2003-2015, in which we gathered some of the true pioneers in the field of WiFi, Broadband, and Applications who represented the tech, business, nonprofit, and education “industries,” and who envisioned what policy, financing, technical challenges and more to overcome to make nation-wide broadband a reality. Also, I was invited by Cisco in 2004 to attend its Global Education & Broadband conference in Stockholm and Oslo (convened during the same time as the Nobel Prize ceremonies; Lev Gonick was another US representative of 10 of us, and I the only woman). At this summit, I learned about how government initiatives, funding, policy, and support in other countries were solving these issues, but not here. In the U.S., we have private companies providing infrastructure and services, so without private and some public sources of monies—in grants and investments—broadband infrastructure has lagged here. So, in 2004, Stockholm was connecting all of its public housing to broadband, Portugal had a nation-wide plan, Ethiopia was seeking ways to provide city-wide access etc. It opened my eyes to the possibilities—and inspired my work and commitments.

The ShapingEDU “Connecting for Work and Learning: Universal Broadband Access in the United States” initiative clearly has grown out of the challenges we’re seeing as learners across the country—and those facilitating their learning—have made a sudden pivot from mostly-onsite to primarily online learning in an incredibly short period of time. What opportunities do you see this shelter-in-place period providing for those supporting universal broadband access throughout the United States?

Over the past few weeks, there have been numerous articles in our local press and nationally about this persistent challenge of providing the tools and the connectivity to those without access. It is especially potent now where “remote learning” is at the forefront of the national discussion. How over 700,000 students in California alone do not have adequate tools or connectivity, how in our Monterey County 17,000 students of 78,000 K-12 students, do not have access. So it is a two-fold dilemma. The first is the economic, geographic, racial, social justice and digital divide; the other side of the coin, so to speak, is access to education (as well as access to health, social services, government & employment resources) on the Internet. As for distance learning, as I mentioned, I’ve been involved in this since the early 1980s with the first nationwide educational satellite networks, to two-way interactive videoconferencing to today’s online arena, and am a founding member of the United States Distance Learning Association, a nonprofit organization that brings together the business, government and education (K-12, higher ed, lifelong learning) arenas.

I used to travel this country teaching about distance learning, the professional development that’s required for K-12 teachers and higher ed, the tools that are necessary, the time and money commitments, the assessing of the skills that a learner/student needs to bring to the table, so to speak, to participate fully and effectively. What we have now is a “hodge-podge” emergency-laden response, so I am glad and grateful these issues are at the forefront, but concurrently distressed that we have 1) not solved the technology and broadband infrastructure issues and 2) that distance learning potentials are being met in a haphazard, uncoordinated manner that is leaving many students at the wayside—either turned off to what their teachers are so desperately and heroically trying to provide without proper professional development and the use of readily available curricula and distance ed resources—or students who are excluded because of no technology or access.

Yes, the issues are glaringly at the forefront right now. However, with the uncertainties festered by the global pandemic and the global economic downturn, I fear that broadband and technology access may be pushed aside once again for those who are not empowered. Broadband will continue to be provided for those in urban areas and for the workers of global and national corporations/agencies—but not for those who need it, too. 

Drawing upon your extensive experience, what would you suggest individuals can do to support broadband access locally, regionally, and nationally?

Oh, this is too long a response, but: 

  1. Learn what’s going on in your region. Who are the service providers, how can local government negotiate with them to provide access to your community?
  2. Ditto, research which organizations are actively working on these issues, school districts, county offices of education, libraries, local business community that requires broadband to survive and expand.
  3. At the state level, find out what policy and funding the state is offering. Does it have a broadband policy? Who is overseeing this—and, by the way, just about every state does have a policy—how can you get involved?
  4. At the federal level, see what the FCC is doing—its National Broadband Plan—what does its state, what is its status?
  5. Learn what organizations involved in these issues are doing—for example, the United States Distance Learning Association, COSN [the Consortium for School Networking], ISTE [the International Society for Technology in Education], Silicon Valley, the Wireless Communications Alliance here in California, these are examples of the kinds of government, business, nonprofit, education, telecom providers are doing. For example, Comcast, AT&T, and Spectrum Charter each have initiatives to provide monthly low-cost Internet (generally $10-$15 per month).

In other words, research, explore, involve yourself. Collaborate, Cooperate and Activate!

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Arlene Krebs (Part 1 of 2)

September 8, 2020

This is the first part of a two-part interview conducted with Arlene Krebs, a ShapingEDU colleague who is consulting in the arts, education, and technology and was honored as a California Broadband Champion in 2014. Arlene and I serve together as members of the organizing committee for ShapingEDU’s “Connecting for Work and Learning: Universal Broadband Access in the United States” initiative. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

Let’s start by setting some contemporary context for our conversation. During the recent week-long ShapingEDU Learning(Hu)Man virtual summer camp [July 2020], you talked about your evolving view of the term “digital divide,” and later circled back to broaden those comments. Care to summarize that here?

I’ve been working in this arena all my life, with initiatives to assist the most underserved and underrepresented members of our nation…be it in education-teaching, in working with other pioneers in the field of distance learning to assure equitable access to learning resources, teachers/faculty, and participation, and when the Internet “kicked off” in the late 1990s, to help expand opportunities for wired and wireless connectivity for Internet access. 

When everyone began to call it the “digital divide,” it first meant—was understood as—access to technology and connectivity—be it DSL, satellite communications, or—as it evolved—“high-speed bandwidth.” So at that point it became clearer, as I worked in this arena, that technology and bandwidth are part of the solution. Having the financial means to acquire technology and pay for Internet access was another part of the equation. So I began using the term “the economic and digital divide.”

As I worked in this arena and helped to form the Central Coast Broadband Consortium, and organized annual regional conferences—“The Wireless Community & Mobile User Conference”—I became more aware, learned from others, that access is more than money and technology and connectivity. It became clearer that the telecom providers were not going to wire or provide connectivity in areas that did not produce an ROI, or where the geographic terrain is too difficult. These are referred to as underserved areas. So then it became a geographic, economic and digital divide. As the push for broadband evolved, as the FCC, cities, states, and our own California became more involved in policy and public awareness, I realized that the divide is a geographic, economic, racial, social justice, and digital divide. Today, not having access to the tools, the connectivity, the resources to participate fully in our increasingly digital and virtual culture, is a form of exclusion. It is a “locked-out” form of denying equitable participation in our democracy.

I’m going to come back to much of what you just said to explore it a bit more fully, but want to step back a bit for a moment. You mentioned your lifelong interest in this topic. Was there any one personal incident/experience that initially drew you into becoming an advocate for Internet access?

Yes: education and distance learning, I am a pioneer in that arena. When I left my home in New York City to come here for one year to help kickstart distance learning at the new university—California State University, Monterey Bay—it had written a vision statement (summarized here) that included “serving the most underrepresented people in our region and to use technology as a catalyst to transform people’s lives.” So I left my work in lifelong learning and as a Communications professor working with underrepresented urban residents, to pick up the banner, so to speak, of underrepresented farm and hospitality workers in this region.

Sounds like a great example of the “follow your heart” idea. What has been most encouraging to you during all those years of activism on this issue?

I’ve been really fortunate in that I’ve had an amazing, fulfilling career that encompasses the education, business, and non-profit arenas. I did my graduate work in the 1970s on the Impact of Communications Technology on Culture—with the launch of the first communications satellites (1976) and its applications for interactive videoconferencing for education. This was the “beginning of modern distance learning”—as opposed to radio, one-way broadcast TV, and snail-mail usages previously. So participating in and watching how education, business, and nonprofits—particularly in the arts—began and continue to use technology and connectivity is especially heartwarming—though not without lingering issues. Moreover, I began working with one nonprofit [Loaves, Fishes & Computers] that focuses on computer refurbishing and digital literacy for underrepresented communities, and this, too, has been very fulfilling. I am Chair Emerita for it, and continue to envision its future and how we can assist for 11 years now. Also fulfilling.

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


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