Does the Connecting of Anchor Institutions Benefit Communities?

The Personal Telco Project is currently working on finding new hosting for our primary webserver. One of the prime candidates for this has been Portland State University. Today, we were informed that one organization within the University has declined, at least for now. The prioritization of connecting so-called “anchor institutions” is seen in documents, such as the National Broadband Plan, as a means of benefitting the communities in which they reside. However, the internal focus of these institutions, and the holding at arms-length of organizations like Personal Telco Project that serve the community, leads me to question the assumption that “anchor institutions” are truly a workable vehicle for digital inclusion.

For most of a decade, Personal Telco Project has hosted a server at no charge in a colocation facility belonging to Integra Telecomm. Over the years, our internal advocates there left the positions of authority and influence, and a year ago Integra generously decided to give us a year’s notice and then end that particular arrangement. We are truly grateful for what they have provided us. As a volunteer-based non-profit with essentially no fundraising, we lack resources to pay for server hosting. Their in-kind donation helped us maintain our web presence without a substantial financial burden and let us concentrate on our volunteer service work.

With the clock ticking down, over the last year we have been exploring alternatives. Last summer, we had a conversation with a faculty member at Portland State University who thought that they should be doing more to help us. We wondered if PSU could host a server, and the faculty member thought they could or should. This autumn, we began making inquiries. Since early January we have been corresponding with a technical contact at Portland State, and they have been advocating on our behalf. Apparently this question was escalated to their CIO, and today we heard back that the answer, at least for now, is “no”. There are still some possibilities there, but the outcome remains uncertain. We had hoped to be moved in by now, instead we have another 10 days or so before our box has to be out of the Integra co-lo, and we don’t know quite where we are going to land.

We note that Portland State University has a mission statement that includes a section called “Community and Civic Engagement”:

PSU values its identity as an engaged university that promotes a reciprocal relationship between the community and the University in which knowledge serves the city and the city contributes to the knowledge of the University.
We value our partnerships with other institutions, professional groups, the business community, and community organizations, and the talents and expertise these partnerships bring to the University. We embrace our role as a responsible citizen of the city, the state, the region, and the global community and foster actions, programs, and scholarship that will lead to a sustainable future.

This would seem to allow latitude for engaging with us and offering us support. For our own part we have engaged with PSU, in the form of offering capstone projects to their computer science students, and would welcome more engagement with practical experiences to augment their academic offerings.

Our state of limbo sucks for us, but there is a larger question: Are public institutions, like libraries, schools, universities and governments really effective vehicles for benefitting the communities they reside in when it comes to access to the internet? It would seem that the answer is largely “no”. When these institutions get sweet deals on internet connectivity, through franchise agreement concessions, grants and the like, the benefits tend to accrue exclusively to those institutions’ internal customers. The benefits of high-speed connections to these “anchor institutions” rarely leak out to the community. For what it’s worth, Personal Telco Project has equipment and expertise it could be using on public buildings to share the internet with the community. We are ready to partner with anyone to make internet connectivity more available. It is always possible to invent reasons why you can’t be making things better. We encourage you to think instead of the whys and ways in which you *can* make things better.

If you have hosting space, with generous bandwidth and a few U of rack space you can share, please get in touch with us ASAP. Thanks!

2 Responses to “Does the Connecting of Anchor Institutions Benefit Communities?”

  1. It’s also worth noting that many public institutions receive favorable bandwidth pricing thanks for regulatory agreements with private telecommunications-incumbents that limit access to those resources by the general public.

    Incumbents have agreed to allow these institutions to sidestep private monopolies (largely by agreeing not to litigate), as long as they are allowed to maintain monopolies over residential and commercial service. For example, the City of Portland is able to operate its own high speed municipal network, but they are forbidden from allowing the public access to it.

  2. I’d toss in a few $’s per year, are there any others ? I use a hosting service in/near Chicago. It costs be something like $8/month.

    PSU’s decision doesn’t surprise me, sad


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