Shirley Franklin Helps Close the Broadband Divide

The former Atlanta mayor promotes private-public partnerships to bring underserved communities up to speed.

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Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin has taken on a new role as an advocate for broadband access for the underserved. She was recently named by the Alliance for Digital Equality as a senior policy adviser. In a special report to Roll Call, Franklin and former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz collaborated to spell out the role they saw high-speed Internet access playing in disadvantaged communities. "Broadband is the cornerstone to providing more affordable access to health care for the unserved and underserved, and is really the bridge to the future for our children."

"I've taken on very few initiatives since I've been mayor," said Franklin, who currently holds the William and Camille Cosby professorship at Spelman College in Atlanta, co-chairs the Regional Commission on Homelessness, serves as vice chair of the Center of Civil and Human Rights and serves on the board of the United Nations Institute for Training and Research.

"As I look forward into the future," Franklin said, "broadband access is as important as any infrastructure questions I dealt with as mayor."

On becoming the first African-American woman to lead Atlanta, Franklin faced a major challenge--to fix the city's aging sewer system. The city's system of underground pipes, woefully inadequate for the population it served, had been in place for decades--some of it since the end of the 19th century--and many of its main arteries were beginning to crumble. The mayor bit the bullet and slowly convinced taxpayers that investing billions to upgrade the city's sewer was crucial to Atlanta's growth.

Franklin sees some of the same issues with broadband access. "Who pays and how is it paid for?" is one of the former mayor's trademark questions. "It will cost as much as $300 billion to build out broadband infrastructure nationwide," Franklin continued. "The federal government does not have the money to do this. I believe we need a public/private partnership--the cost can't be borne exclusively by the user."

Although Franklin has only been involved with the Alliance for Digital Equality for the past two months, she has rolled her sleeves up and gotten down to business. "My skills are largely about implementation, setting benchmarks ... and understanding the elements of a problem," she said. Franklin met with other Alliance for Digital Equality representatives in Washington, D.C., last week, following the recent release of the FCC's National Broadband Plan. "I met with CWA (Communications Workers of America) for the first time, as well as community-based groups."

She also spent time on Capitol Hill, renewing relationships she'd forged as Atlanta's mayor with Reps. Kendrick Meek and Sheila Jackson Lee as well the congressman from her own district, Rep. John Lewis. "I wanted to make sure that they knew I was involved with this," she said.

The Alliance for Digital Equality has developed digital education and training programs, including its premier program, Learning Without Walls, which ensures secure online communication among students and teachers, classroom management tools, coaching for teachers, and after-school online tutorials for K-12 students, and introductory college level and workforce development training for adults.

Pilot programs are being tested in Atlanta, Houston and Charleston, S.C. One of the stated goals for Learning Without Walls is to examine how 24/7 access to educational resources through mobile devices helps improve student engagement and academic achievement. The program seems to be a hit in the Clayton County libraries in Georgia. Franklin says "every hour of every day, every computer is scheduled."

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