Lev Gonick on Universal Broadband Access: If Not Now, When?
— December 11, 2020
“2020, for all the tragedy of COVID and the toll of human life and collective anxiety, is the year that universal broadband access moved from being a quixotic call in the wild to a near table stakes reality, especially for education needs,” Arizona State University (ASU) Chief Information Officer Lev Gonick observed during a recent interview for the ASU ShapingEDU Reshaping Learning blog.
“At ASU itself,” he continued, “we have provided thousands of laptop and hotspot loaners to students in need, including hundreds of students from American Indian reservations in rural Arizona. We have also worked to develop a coalition of partners working on digital equity including incumbent providers, new entrants, community anchor institutions like the State Library, healthcare organizations, K-12 school districts, the Maricopa Community Colleges and, of course, the remarkable breadth of talent across ASU itself. We have also worked with key education broadband network organizations, like the Sun Corridor Network [where Gonick serves as director of its governing board], which provides network connectivity to universities, colleges, and schools across the state. Recently, we started working with cities and the State government to align policy objectives to integrated network architectures to the priorities and needs of the community, as the community itself has articulated. What took a decade in Northeast Ohio is happening here in Arizona in under a year.
“The big difference is COVID-19 and the realization that broadband being provided to advance remote K-20 learners across the state, especially in our inner cities and rural communities, can also be used for health and wellness needs, next generation workforce development and skills, business attraction, and economic development. That has always been the promise. Now we are seeing the coalition coming together in unprecedented fashion. ASU is a strong and capable partner, and we are advancing the needs of Arizona in alignment with our mission.”
Gonick’s involvement in and activism on behalf of education and technology extends over a period of more than three decades, as a brief biographical note for one of his conference presentations confirms. While serving as vice president for Information Technology Services and Chief Information Officer at Case Western Reserve University (in Cleveland), he was named one of the “Top 25 Doers, Dreamers & Drivers in Public-Sector Innovation” and one of “10 Difference Makers” by Crain’s Cleveland Business. He has served as president of the Board of the New Media Consortium; co-chair of the Cisco Higher Ed Executive Exchange; and a consultant to more than 40 universities and colleges in the United States and Canada as well as serving as a presenter at educational and technology conferences around the world.
He recalls being drawn initially to efforts to foster Internet access in the 1980s: “In 1987, I helped my friend Rob Borland from the University of Zimbabwe establish MangoNet, an early FidoNet network in Southern Africa providing connectivity to rural healthcare providers in Zimbabwe through GreenNet and WorkNet—all part of the pre-commercialization of the Internet. My wife and I managed to bring in 1440 baud modems which were installed at the Swiss Embassy in Harare. For four years, from 1990-1993), I took a group of students from across Canada and the United States to Zimbabwe for intensive study and non-governmental experiences. We continued our work with MangoNet, which eventually became HealthNet. Thereafter, I realized how important connectivity was both for health and wellness, as we were working on the detection of tuberculosis (TB) as an early indication of AIDS, but also AIDs education using early Internet protocols. When I started working in California in 1995, I took my learnings from Africa and began thinking and working on connecting parts of Pomona, which were on the “wrong side of the tracks,” with poverty, low education attainment, deteriorating public housing and little to no Internet. That marked the beginning of my 25-year effort to contribute to Connecting the Unconnected.”
The most important lesson learned from those initial interactions with Borland was “the importance of designing and building coalitions of the willing,” he recalls—an effort that has extended over a decade-long period of time through BroadBand Properties and the annual Broadband Communities Summit, and that continues to this day through numerous endeavors, including his work with the Arizona State University ShapingEDU community he helped establish in 2018 for dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the digital age.
“Before there was Broadband Communities, the same collection of national leaders were organized under the name BroadBand Properties,” he recalls. “They generously awarded me a national recognition for our community vision of connecting the community in Northeast Ohio in 2011. Thereafter, I was invited to share some of our work at the annual meetings and met a number of broadband leaders who were working on what would become known as the National Broadband Plan and the National Broadband Coalition. I had an opportunity to support both efforts through my experience at Case Western Reserve and our work at OneCommunity, which later became DigitalC [an ongoing project in Cleveland].
“Jim Baller, one of the nation’s foremost legal authorities on broadband, has convened a ‘blue ribbon’ panel each year on Economic Development at the Broadband Communities conference for at least the last eight or so years. I have had the pleasure of being the moderator for that panel for most of those sessions. The topics typically include a review of where we’ve come from over the past year, and the opportunities and challenges ahead. This past year, as we were remote, Jim chaired the panel and I was happy to share some of the great work that we are doing at Arizona State University (ASU) on economic development and educational attainment by leveraging community networking partnerships.”
The rapidly-growing ASU ShapingEDU community of practice (and action) has, during its first three years of operation, quickly evolved. Starting as a global community of educators and learners trying to imagine and foster positive change in lifelong learning, it is, through its Innovators in Residence and Storytellers in Residence programs, increasingly fostering global collaborations centered around a variety of contemporary social issues, including the social justice aspects of providing broadband access for work and learning throughout the United States, including broadband access.
As the current pandemic has led to unexpected and rapid shifts in the way students in academic and work settings are learning, ShapingEDU community members have responded in a variety of ways, including creation, in May 2020, of the ShapingEDU “Connecting for Work and Learning” initiative.
“There is a role for everyone interested in and committed to broadband equity,” Gonick says. “There are personal and organizational investments of not only cash, but also equipment, policy and community coalition building, legal work, broadening an understanding of community needs and, of course, volunteering to support the orientation to and education of the more than 30 percent of Americans who do not have access to nor use the Internet. Something for everyone. The regional and national angle is about identifying existing forces working to address access, equity, adoption, and use and supporting them, whether those are libraries, community centers, the national coalition digital inclusion and so forth.”
And, in terms of his own sense of optimism that long-term efforts to create universal broadband access throughout the United States may finally be within reach, he asks and says “If not now, when? If not us, who? This is our time and our calling. There is strong non-partisan support across most (but not all) of the actors from policy to providers, to community interests. I am bullish that we will see significant progress in the next calendar year.”
For more information about ShapingEDU and what community members are doing to shape the future of learning in the digital age, please visit the community website.
–A lightly-edited transcript of Paul’s interview with Lev Gonick is on Paul’s Building Creative Bridges blog.