TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Calling All Luddites

Calling All Luddites

Thomas L. Friedman (
Thu, 4 Aug 2005 12:44:15 -0500


I've been thinking of running for high office on a one-issue platform:
I promise, if elected, that within four years America will have
cellphone service as good as Ghana's. If re-elected, I promise that in
eight years America will have cellphone service as good as Japan's,
provided Japan agrees not to forge ahead on wireless technology. My
campaign bumper sticker: "Can You Hear Me Now?"

I began thinking about this after watching the Japanese use cellphones
and laptops to get on the Internet from speeding bullet trains and
subways deep underground. But the last straw was when I couldn't get
cellphone service while visiting I.B.M.'s headquarters in Armonk, N.Y.

But don't worry -- Congress is on the case. It dropped everything last
week to pass a bill to protect gun makers from shooting victims'
lawsuits. The fact that the U.S. has fallen to 16th in the world in
broadband connectivity aroused no interest. Look, I don't even like
cellphones, but this is not about gadgets. The world is moving to an
Internet-based platform for commerce, education, innovation and
entertainment. Wealth and productivity will go to those countries or
companies that get more of their innovators, educators, students,
workers and suppliers connected to this platform via computers, phones
and P.D.A.'s.

A new generation of politicians is waking up to this issue. For
instance, Andrew Rasiej is running in New York City's Democratic
primary for public advocate on a platform calling for wireless (Wi-Fi)
and cellphone Internet access from every home, business and school in
the city. If, God forbid, a London-like attack happens in a New York
subway, don't trying calling 911. Your phone won't work down there. No
wireless infrastructure. This ain't Tokyo, pal.

At the City Hall subway stop this morning, Mr. Rasiej plans to show
how one makes a 911 call from the subway. He will have one aide with a
tin can in the subway send a message to another aide holding a tin can
connected by a string. Then the message will be passed by tin can and
string up to Mr. Rasiej on the street, who will call 911 with his

"That is how you say something if you see something today in a New
York subway -- tin cans connected to someone with a cellphone on the
street," said Mr. Rasiej, a 47-year-old entrepreneur who founded an
educational-technology nonprofit.

Mr. Rasiej wants to see New York follow Philadelphia, which decided it
wouldn't wait for private companies to provide connectivity to all.
Instead, Philly made it a city-led project - like sewers and
electricity. The whole city will be a "hot zone," where any resident
anywhere with a computer, cellphone or P.D.A. will have cheap
high-speed Wi-Fi access to the Internet.

Mr. Rasiej argues that we can't trust the telecom companies to make
sure that everyone is connected because new technologies, like free
Internet telephony, threaten their business models. "We can't trust
the traditional politicians to be the engines of change for how people
connect to their government and each other," he said. By the way, he
added, "If New York City goes wireless, the whole country goes

Mr. Rasiej is also promoting civic photo-blogging -- having people use
their cellphones to take pictures of potholes or crime, and then,
using Google maps, e-mailing the pictures and precise locations to
City Hall.

Message: In U.S. politics, the party that most quickly absorbs the
latest technology often dominates. F.D.R. dominated radio and the
fireside chat; J.F.K., televised debates; Republicans, direct mail and
then talk radio, and now Karl Rove's networked voter databases.

The technological model coming next -- which Howard Dean accidentally
uncovered but never fully developed - will revolve around the power of
networks and blogging. The public official or candidate will no longer
just be the one who talks to the many or tries to listen to the many.
Rather, he or she will be a hub of connectivity for the many to work
with the many -- creating networks of public advocates to identify and
solve problems and get behind politicians who get it.

"One elected official by himself can't solve the problems of eight
million people," Mr. Rasiej argued, "but eight million people
networked together can solve one city's problems. They can spot and
offer solutions better and faster than any bureaucrat. ... The party
that stakes out this new frontier will be the majority party in the
21st century. And the Democrats better understand something -- their
base right now is the most disconnected from the network."

Can you hear me now?

Copyright 2005 New York Times Company

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