Keeping up with technology: It’s hard to outguess the crowd

August 02, 2011

By Eric Rabe

More and more government leaders are turning to social media to communicate with constituents, Fels research is finding in a major project this summer.  Often their approach takes advantage of the very latest ideas.  We expect to issue a Promising Practices report this fall detailing our research and describing the innovations we're finding.  It is clear that government is embracing new alternatives as more and more people have access to computers with fast on-line Internet connections.

Indeed, for years it's been a dream of many government leaders that the Internet be as ubiquitous as traditional phone service became – and just as cheap or even cheaper.  Since more and more information and commerce are on-line, the Web is seen as essential.  A particular focus of this public policy work has been to provide access to those least able to afford a computer and high speed Internet at home.  Some plans, such as providing free computers and connections in libraries have been a success, but this is considered inadequate since users have to travel to the library. Other approaches have varied. 

In 2004, Philadelphia Mayor John Street excited the Internet community with a plan to wire the entire city for WiFi.  Years and millions of dollars later, the project finally collapsed and the city agreed to buy the leftovers for 10 cents on the dollar.  It proved to be expensive, time-consuming and ultimately not possible to build the network Street and his technology aid Dianah Neff imagined using public funds and without a sustaining source of revenue.  Similar projects, launched with great fanfare in other cities also stuttered.  Even a project backed by the deep pockets of Google in San Francisco ultimately could not live up to its hype. (Photo: Former Philadelphia Mayor Street)

In Washington, the FCC is pursuing changes in the traditional "universal service" requirements of telecommunications companies to support fast Internet connections in rural areas.  Discussion about how to accomplish this has been going on for years.

Meanwhile there is good evidence that consumers are taking matters into their own hands while government struggles to find a solution.  A Pew study this summer found that 35% of all America adults now own “smartphones” – those devices that make calls and also access to the Internet.  Of smartphone owners, one in four goes online more often that not using a smartphone.  For these users, Internet access is available wherever they are at a cost close to that of a home computer Internet connection.  The device to reach the Internet is far less expensive ($200 for the smartphone versus two to ten times that for a computer).  That may be why Pew found that, “African-Americans and Latinos are more likely than whites to use their cell phones for non-voice applications such as using the Internet...”

While the Internet experience on a small screen may seem less satisfying than on a full-sized computer, new smart phones and tablet computers provide important improvements.  Meanwhile, the carriers like Verizon, Sprint and AT&T are deploying faster and faster wireless networks, and, at least in some cases, the price to use them is the same as for the slower service being replaced.(Photo: Two popular smartphones)

We'll have to see if wireless technologies make an end run around home computing as they have bypassed fixed home phone service.  But the betting here is that it's only a matter of time.  As government leaders think about how to reach constituents, the most forward thinking of them will focus on mobile tablet computers and smart phones. 

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