picnic0927.jpgWritten by Sean C. Stacey and Brooke Thompson

Hosted by Sylvia Paull, founder of the Berkeley Cybersalon, who called it the inaugural session of the “Amsterdam Berkely Cybersalon,” this panel discussion centered around the future of large cities, dubbed “Megalopolises” containing around 10 million people, and how to provide digital access to everyone within them. The panel included Joaquin Alvarado, Director of the San Francisco State University’s Institute for Next Generation Internet and Co-Founder of the Digital Sister Cities Initiative, Chris Vein, Acting Executive Director of the Department of Telecommunications and Information Services for the City of San Francisco, Esme Guzman Vos, Founder of Muniwireless.com, Eckart Wintzen, Founder of Ex’tent Green Venture Capital, and Erik Fackeldey, Project Manager for the IT Sector of the Paris Development Agency.

The panel began with each member introducing him or herself and talking a little bit about their recent experience with providing low-cost or free access to the Internet, computers, and information technology training to low income people. The panel mainly discussed the political implications of attempting to provide such universal access to the “Knowledge Economy” and whether it was preferable for private industry or public services to develop the infrastructure with which to support it.

Esme discussed WiFi technology and the benefits of cities that act as carriers to provide WiFi access to their citizens or personnel. Joaquin talked about the next-generation Internet and the future of digital carriers and broadband access. Eckart had the audience in stitches with his rant about how he couldn’t get minimum 50Mbit Internet connection and how the national government had stifled an attempt by Amsterdam to lay fibre optic cable throughout the city on its own. Erik spoke about the city of Paris’s effort to provide high-quality broadband access to its citizens at a reasonable cost, 100Mbits for 30 euros per month. And Chris Vein provided insight into San Francisco’s recent partnership with Earthlink, Google, and Tropos Networks to provide free wireless access to the entire city, while helping to defray the cost by offering a faster tier for a subscription fee.

After the initial personal and project introductions, Sylvia Paull directed questions from audience members to certain panel members. At times the discussion was heated, but everyone seemed to agree that the future is broadband Internet access that is available to all who want it. The discussion ranged toward how to convince politicians that such a policy was needed; Eckart made an impassioned plea for everyone to speak to their politicians, as actual voices are almost more important to them than money.

The future may be happening sooner than we think, as a pilot program is being developed in New Mexico to provide 100Mbit connections to the Native American reservations there. Once such an example is in place, it may be easier to convince the recalcitrant that such a thing really can be done affordably. Affordable access to broadband infrastructure promotes the sharing of culture and the generation of knowledge. Small successes need to be emphasized and promoted in order to grow them into larger and more ubiquitous advances.

Remember, some presentations given during Picnic ’06 are being streamed and archived on the Picnic website, while the Picnic ’06 blog continues coverage of the event. Be sure to check out the event from home if you can!