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September 4, 2009 9:06 AM

Best Broadband Analogies: The Digital Redwoods Ecosystem

As I recently wrote, most people don't understand even the basics of broadband, including many of our policymakers. Because of this, the discussions surrounding broadband policy-making often must resort to the use of analogies to simplify the explanation of complex concepts and to take tech talk out of the equation.

Some people lament this tendency as analogies are invariably inadequate at describing and explaining all the complexities and dynamics of the issues surrounding broadband. Yet at the same time, storytelling can be a great tool for establishing a baseline of common understanding about the most important core principles. And the reality is that for most people, analogies are the only way to help them make sense of what can be very technical discussions.

That's why I'm going to start collecting and sharing my favorite broadband analogies in order to help equip broadband believers like myself and my readers with better ways of talking about broadband that can help the broadest audience better understand what they need to know.

To that end, this week I heard one of my favorite new analogies from Sean McLaughlin, a community media pioneer and executive director of Access Humboldt, an entity working to bring broadband to and foster local community media in Humboldt County, CA. He's an incredibly thoughtful guy who's able to look at the world through the eyes of a poet, the mind of an engineer, and the heart of a long-time community activist.

Among the many things Access Humboldt does is a project called Digital Redwoods, which is their primary effort to organize local leaders around the goal of bringing better broadband to Humboldt County. I'll be describing this project in greater detail at a later date, but for now let's stay on the topic of analogies.

In talking with Sean he shared that the "Digital Redwoods" was more than just a nice name, it described a specific analogy that they're using to help describe the intent of the project.

The core of this analogy is that we need to think about broadband as an ecosystem that, just like a redwood forest, requires all of its components working together to survive and thrive.

In this analogy, the roots of the redwood trees are like fiber optic cables forming the bedrock of modern communications systems, linking everyone together with reliable, robust connectivity. The leaves then form a canopy akin to wireless access that covers every inch of ground and creates an ecosystem of its own of high-flying critters (or apps). The trees then represent the community anchor institutions around which communities establish themselves and grow.

What I love most about this analogy is the need for interconnectedness that it implies. Without their roots, trees will be less steady and are more likely to fall over. Without their leaves, coverage can't reach everywhere plus there will be less energy (bandwidth) running through the roots. And without the trees you miss out on the ability to foster strong communities and to help tie together wireless and wireline broadband.

I can even how we can take this analogy even further. Perhaps sunshine equates to electricity as the engine that powers broadband, and water to bandwidth as the common element that flows throughout the ecosystem. And, of course, all the little critters then represent us, enjoying life in a connected, interdependent, fully realized broadband ecosystem.

More than anything else, the reason I like this analogy so much is because of how it embodies the importance of thinking about broadband as an interconnected ecosystem and how it establishes the dynamic between wireless, wireline, and communities.

Like all analogies, it starts to break down once you start getting too specific (like where does middle mile, net neutrality, and bandwidth caps fit within this scenario?), but that doesn't lessen it's impact as a tool to help explain the need to look at broadband as an intergrated whole rather than a series of pieces.

You can look forward to more analogies like this in the future. If this article inspires thoughts within you of either how to extend this analogy further or if you want to share analogies of your own, feel encouraged to do so in the comments below!

Because the other great thing about analogies is that they're essentially stories, and stories become stronger the more we share them with others, and the more we share the stronger our community becomes.

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Comments (2)

Re: Creating Clear Adoption Values.

The dynamics of the digital divide remind me of the question - why did the chicken cross the road?

The answer is that the chicken understood and believed there were practical benefits, relevant to it, on the other side of the road, that it calculated to be worth the time and trouble, and risk, of crossing the road.

More academically. A Nobel Prize was won by a U of Chicago economist on the perhaps self-evident proposition that poor people make rational decisions about their circumstances.

Don Samuelson

Posted by Don Samuelson on September 4, 2009 5:42 PM

one element appears to be missing and that is the carbon dioxide given off by the process, which I would liken to all the corruption in ownership that is inevitable.


Posted by Digital Eyes on September 4, 2009 7:25 PM

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