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Broadband and democratic participation

When government goes online, what happens to citizens who are not? This was central to our thinking when we designed e Sri Lanka. That is why such importance was placed on voice access, on the government information center. But it looks like it has not been fully thought through in the US, according to this NYT story.

“You often hear people talk about broadband from a business development perspective, but it’s much more significant than that,” Mr. Depew added. “This is about whether rural communities are going to participate in our democratic society. If you don’t have effective broadband, you are cut out of things that are really core to who we are as a country.”

Affordable broadband service through hard wiring and or cellular phone coverage could revolutionize life in rural parts of the country. People could pay bills, shop and visit doctors online. They could work from home and take college classes.

Increasingly, interacting with certain branches of government can be done only online. And sometimes, a lack of cellphone or e-mail access can have serious consequences. Emergency alerts regarding severe weather, for example, are often sent only through text or e-mail.

All of that is important, certainly. But here in Clarke County, where churches and taxidermy shops line the main roads and drivers learn early to dodge logging trucks hauling pine trees, most people would simply like to upload photos of their children to Facebook.

“Ninety-five percent of the people in this county who want public water can have it, but people can’t even talk to each other around here,” said Sharon Jones, 60, who owns a small logging company with her husband and lives just outside Coffeeville.

It took her three days to try to arrange a meeting with the governor 150 miles away in Montgomery because such inquiries cannot be made over the phone and she had to drive 45 minutes to her daughter’s house to use e-mail.

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