Comments on Twelve Years of Commission Service

On March 27, 2014, I received a Distinguished Service Award from the City of Austin for twelve years of service on the Austin Community Technology and Telecommunications Commission. Here is the video, followed by my prepared text.

Thank you for this recognition. I see this as a recognition not just for my personal efforts, but also for the accomplishments of the many groups I've had the good fortune to work with over the past ten years.

I'd like to share this recognition with: all my fellow Community Tech and Telecom Commissioners, past and present; City Council and its Emerging Technology Committee members; Rondella Hawkins and her staff in the office of Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs; the city's CTM and PIO departments; and the many groups who work so hard on behalf the community, such as Austin Free-Net, Channel Austin, Big Gig Austin, and Open Austin.

Although I've stepped down from the Commission, I plan to remain active in technology policy areas. I'd like to say the best is yet to come, but I don't want to be glib about it, because we've had some pretty fantastic, hard-to-top accomplishments over the past ten years.

Take, for instance, Google Fiber. Austin was among 1100 cities across the nation competing to be the site of the Google gigabit broadband network. I was, of course, disappointed when we weren't selected back in 2010. But when Google had the Kansas City network underway and they were ready for another, they remembered our proposal for how Austin could be a great gigabit broadband city.

The Google fiber roll-out is now underway. Even though Google hasn't even turned on their network, we're already seeing impacts that will make Austin a great broadband city. Every single broadband provider currently in Austin has responded with plans to upgrade their broadband offerings. All of us stand to reap enormous rewards – economic, social, and cultural rewards – from this.

Will these programs lead to a fully connected and digitally capable city? It's not clear that market forces alone will be sufficient to achieve this goal. We should monitor the progress of the broadband buildout. If we identify areas of need, so-called broadband deserts in the city, then we should respond. And, when we respond, we should consider the full set of tools available to us.

I want to dispel one prevalent piece of misinformation I commonly hear: that Texas state law prohibits cities from building or supporting broadband networks. That's wrong. The state prohibition applies only to regulated services, such as phone and video. When the law was enacted, it applied to broadband too. In 1996, however, the FCC reclassified broadband as an unregulated information service, thus lifting the state barrier to municipal broadband. Broadband network construction and incentives should be considered part of the toolbox when responding to commercial market gaps.

In 2011, the City of Austin conducted a residential technology survey, to assess the digital capabilities and needs in our community. This is something we need to repeat periodically, to monitor progress and trends -- and we're doing that. City Council has approved funding for another survey this year. I think the City of Austin should take the next step, and develop a Digital Opportunities Strategic Plan, to process the survey results, and reach for the goal of a fully digital, fully inclusive city.

Another important area I've enjoyed working on is open government, open data, and civic technology.

This week, Austin is launching its Office of Civic Innovation. I'm proud to have contributed to efforts, both on the Commission and through Open Austin, to advocate for this office, and the post of Chief Innovation Officer. I hope this office will form a nexus between the many departments in the city, and the varied interests and organizations in the community -- to find new ways to make our city government more responsive, more inclusive, and more effective.

I urge City Council and the community to monitor the progress of the Innovation initiative, and work to ensure that the community role is baked in as the program develops. I trust Commission Chair Lemuel Williams will keep that torch lit. I plan to continue advocating for this through Open Austin.

Councilmembers, thank you for this recognition. I'm honored by this. Even more, I'm grateful to live in a city that values the role technology can play in building a better community.