Alan Webber was sworn in as Santa Fe's new mayor on March 12, so I figured a week or so later was a reasonable time to drill down (bad underground-cable-pun intended) on his thoughts as they relate to the city's relationship with technology.
"Santa Fe is lagging behind in adapting to 21st-century technology," Webber says. "I don't think anybody denies that. We've been very slow to recognize how transformative every part of technology is. What's the old cliché?—The web changes everything. We have this unbelievably powerful technology that changes how people live, work, raise their children, communicate—and we are unfortunately, I think, not up to speed, literally and metaphorically."
Webber and I discussed the prospect of bringing Santa Fe "up to speed" in a variety of contexts and at some length, but here's a snapshot.
Ground Game (Or Not)
Eight years ago or so, US cities vied to lure Google Fiber—high-speed Internet and television service—to choose them for the opportunity for new infrastructure. Webber says he thinks now perhaps Santa Fe "dodged a bullet," because the nature of future infrastructure seems likely to be in the airwaves, not underground. "When I was doing Fast Company [the technology/business magazine Webber founded], there was a raging debate about which technology would win: Would it be the desktop, would it be the phone, would it be the TV set? … The votes are in and smartphones won and, in some ways, that's going to make it easier for Santa Fe to plan a strategy."
Using above-ground technology to create connective speeds could be particularly important in Santa Fe, Webber notes, given the challenges the city faces when it comes to underground infrastructure. He notes that he recently met with the governor of Tesuque Pueblo, who reminded him "anytime we dig in Santa Fe, we're touching sacred ground, and it's worth putting a little mental footnote—a lot of cities, they dig and repave. But we have a different historical, cultural and moral obligation to be mindful of what makes Santa Fe different."
Can You Hear Me Now?
Irritated customers may recall back in December, former Mayor Javier Gonzales declared a state of emergency due to problems with Verizon cell service. "If you're at home and you don't have a landline and you can't use your cell phone, we're essentially telling people, 'You're on your own,'" Webber said. Verizon in turn put up temporary antennae to address the lack of service. The new mayor noted that earlier in the week at a senior staff meeting, he got an update on the status. "I think people will say in general the quality of service is improved, and more are supposed to go up," he added. "Demand increases as supply increases," Webber says. "So very quickly people have discovered the service is faster and more reliable, so people say, 'I better use it for more data or more video, so it becomes an ongoing effort." With summer coming, he adds, there will be more tourists "walking around town looking at their phones as they try to find what they're looking for, so there will be even more people eating bandwidth."
In January, city spokesman Matt Ross said the temporary sites would be up for six months while Verizon works on a permanent solution through the city's regular land-use approval process.
Clear-cut solutions aren't obvious, Webber says, comparing web infrastructure to roads. "In automobile terms, any time you widen a road, you induce more traffic. We haven't figured out how to deal with that with cars. I think it's a similar situation with wi-fi and traffic on the smartphone: The more you enable, the more people do it."
Apps for That
A main focus Webber emphasized will be creating a more "user-friendly" city. "We're looking at ways we can use apps to give more power to people who live here and want to get around more easily," he says, "or discover what's going on more quickly or simply cut through red tape." This could mean apps for city parks, parking, business licenses and the like. Webber referenced "the smart city movement," in which cities use hackathons and other initiatives to "give better user experiences and give people more opportunities to be in charge of their own personal choices, from the city's point of view." He did not disagree with me that the city's website could use some help (although I didn't say it that politely).
Wi-Fi Free for All?
Hard to say. "I just don't know if it's doable," Webber says, "but it's a great idea." Improving access for average users—not just providing high-speeds for data-driven industries and Santa Fe's growing start-up culture—is certainly a priority. "There are students sitting outside the Southside library on the weekend because that's the only web access they have in order to do their schoolwork," he says, "We've got to make it possible for people to have access to what is essentially a key public utility: information and access to the web."