Reconfiguring public access in the post-convergence era: the social construction of public access to new media in Austin, Texas

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2007-12

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This dissertation examines the impacts of shifting federal and state regulation on localities and on their efforts to extend public access to new technologies by exploring how libraries, diverse community sites and commercial hotspots have configured their services and programs in Austin, Texas in the last decade. Historically, regulation to ensure public access to communication and information systems have been regarded in the United States as an expression of government's concerns about preserving the public interest in the media. Since the early 1990s, diverse policy initiatives promoting public access to information and communication technology (ICT) sought to fulfill ideals of equity and democracy in the information age. However, an increasing preponderance of neoliberal ideology in current policy discourses, coupled with the explosive growth of high-speed, mobile networks, and individual-based, social software applications are challenging traditional notions of public access in communication policy. Since 2002, federal and state governments have ended a decade of direct government support to local, non-profit and community-based programs that facilitated public access to ICT. Over the same period, they have increasingly pursued a market-oriented approach to broadband access through the unlicensed spectrum, encouraging private enterprises to provider WiFi and wireless services to consumers in restaurants, airports, and other public places. Such changes bear significant implications for issues of governance, participatory democracy and equity in the information age. The comparative case study of Internet access initiatives in Austin seeks to answer three interrelated questions. First, how has public policy facilitating the transition toward convergent media environments framed public access to information and communication technologies (ICT)? A framing analysis of federal, state and local regulation of public ICT access indicates increasing fragmentation of policy discourses on access. Second, what are the main characteristics of the field of public access to ICT in an American technopolis? Austin, a modern American Technopolis and pioneer of Internet access in the country serves as a site to assess the impact of fragmented regulation on public ICT access. Third, how has public access to new technology through the unlicensed spectrum been conceptualized by different access cultures in a shifting regulatory environment? A survey of Wi-Fi hotspots in Austin, interviews with stakeholders and secondary data are employed in analyzing how non-profits, private firms and the local government are configuring high-speed Internet access through the unlicensed spectrum.

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