Gina Millsap: Broadband Avenger
— March 23, 2021
Internet access “is a community, state, and national issue,” retired Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library (TSCPL) CEO Gina Millsap maintains. “It’s not about consumerism, or not exclusively about that. It’s about ensuring all citizens have the tools they need to thrive in their communities.
“I also don’t want to appear as if I’m viewing the service providers as the antagonists, although that can happen—especially if municipalities are considering becoming providers. It’s going to take strong public/private partnerships to make this happen, but elected officials must be knowledgeable enough to write better laws, and visionary enough to understand that, like roads, electricity, and water, broadband should be viewed as essential infrastructure.”
During a recent interview for the ShapingEDU blog, Millsap displayed the fine combination of intense dedication to promoting universal broadband access throughout the United States—the focus of the Arizona State University ShapingEDU “Connecting for Work and Learning” initiative—and the self-effacing sense of humor that is common to so many activists/advocates I have encountered. In confirming her title for me, for example, she mentioned the library CEO position she left last December, then quickly added “that’s what I’m using for now until I can come up with something better—like ‘Broadband Avenger,’ or something like that.” The playfulness, for me, hints at something we all need to keep in mind in our broadband-advocacy efforts: there’s a time to be strident—even shrill—and there’s a time to bring humor and a willingness to collaborate to our efforts if we hope and expect to be successful.
Her own advocacy on behalf of universal broadband access, along with access to the tools necessary for effective use of the Internet, is longstanding: “It actually started for me in the early 1990s, when I had the opportunity to work on the COIN (Columbia (MO) Online Information Network) project. It was the first ISP in the state of Missouri and was a collaboration of the University of Missouri, the City of Columbia, Boone County, the local school district, and the library I worked for—the Daniel Boone Regional Library. I was head of computer services for the library and also became the head of technical and end-user support for COIN because my library had the management contract for it. I saw, very early on, the power of shared online communication and information with community networking and what it could mean for public libraries, local government, and the community. Later, we included small private telephone companies who were often willing to let us locate modem pools in their facilities and whose owners could see the potential of the Internet before the big service providers figured out how to make money on it.”
It was a quest very much in alignment with the work she did, and it was also something rooted in personal experience. She recalls an early “epiphany” she had as a result of working with a library user in Missouri. The man, who was in his eighties, had a son who lived and worked in Japan—a situation that made communication between the two of them difficult, given the cost of intercontinental phone calls. Through COIN, the father and son were able to communicate daily, via email.
“It literally changed his life,” Millsap recalls.
“One of the reasons I’ve worked on broadband planning and advocacy so much in the past few years is a concern that libraries have inadvertently contributed to the digital inequity with the investments we make in digital content that isn’t available to those who aren’t digitally literate or who can’t afford the equipment or broadband services. The pandemic put a harsh spotlight on how flawed our systems are and how inequitable they are.
“From my perspective, the flaws are attributable to the fact that local governments (and many states) haven’t owned this issue. Most of them have left it to the providers, whose business plans don’t align with all community needs. So, the gaps caused by where you live, how much money you have, how technologically adept you are keep getting bigger. I think internet should probably be regulated like a utility and the goal should be universal access.”
Although appreciative and supportive of library staff efforts to connect members of their communities to the Internet and the services and resources to which those connection lead, Millsap acknowledges those efforts as “gap fillers” that need to be accompanied by large-scale efforts with long-term results including the expansion of infrastructure along with development of the skills needed to support use of the Internet for work, learning, and much more.
“We’ve focused so much on the technology that we’ve neglected what should accompany the use of these tools—critical-thinking skills, civic engagement, and understanding of what it means to participate in a democracy. The tools have become the endgame instead of a means to an end.
“There also needs to be more action at the federal level—and I don’t mean just throwing more money at the big legacy providers who own all the fiber networks.”
Her own work follows the pattern which she consistently advocates: working locally (through the library) as well as nationally, through organizations including SHLB [Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition], the Urban Libraries Council (through its Digital Equity Action Team) and numerous individual libraries in the U.S. and Canada “that are engaged in excellent work—many of them as part of community coalitions.”
As for those interested in supporting universal broadband access throughout the United States, our Broadband Avenger recommends that they “hold their local- and state-elected officials accountable for improving access to broadband for all residents. They should participate in the reframing of this discussion as one of social equity, not technology. Thank the community leaders that are showing an interest, support them. Learn more about the issues—the technology, the legislation, the players in the public and private sectors…
“Planning and evaluation of the quality of services should be community-based. People need to be viewed as more than consumers. Part of our job as citizens is to participate in our communities, our country. To do that effectively, you need equitable access to the tools. So part of it is reframing this discussion to talk about investing in ourselves and our democracy instead of just upgrading to the latest Apple watch or Samsung phone.”
N.B. – 1) For more information about the Connecting for Work and Learning initiative or to become involved, please visit the project page on the ShapingEDU website or contact organizing committee members. 2) A lightly-edited transcript of Paul’s interview with Millsap is available on his Building Creative Bridges blog.