Dear 2015, Re: Better Broadband

By Anne Schwieger

Anne Schwieger is a Boston based city planner working to advance digital equity in American cities through a new initiative called the Digital Equity Project. She is a member of the City of Cambridge, MA, Broadband Task Force. She tweets at @DigEquity and @AnneSchwieger.  Email her at anne@digitalequityproject.com.

This blog post is a response to the Dear 2015 group blogging event prompt:

The year is 2050. Write a letter to the people of 2015 describing what your city is like, and give them advice on the next 35 years.

For more responses, see the Dear 2015 Event Page.

Dear 2015,

Greetings from the future! It’s been a while since we’ve been in touch, so I wanted to write you a quick note to let you know about some exciting changes in broadband and cities that are going to have a big impact on the next 35 years. Heads up: this is going to be a bigger deal than you might realize right now. Broadband is, after all, multidimensional – technological, human, and institutional – so don’t worry if it doesn’t all make sense right now. To make a long story short, what you are about to do in the next five years is going to be key for setting you up for success in the decades to come.

To start with, I wanted to wish you all major kudos on the Net Neutrality ruling in February! I’m sure it’s no spoiler, but over the next few years you will find that the coalition of Internet activists built through grassroots organizing will prove immensely important in the ongoing protection of the free and open Internet.

As I recall, right about now broadband is being used as a differentiator in discussions about local and regional economic development. I remember the basic sentiment at that time was “My city has awesome broadband and yours doesn’t – good luck with your ‘economic development’ plan!” You’ll be happy to hear that though it took a while, those days are long gone! People began to see that the most amazing thing about being able to use gigabit speed Internet is not in who is drawn to a gig but in who a gig enables to grow – i.e. everyone! Cities began using data driven digital inclusion strategies to leverage their fast, affordable, and reliable broadband networks to fully support all community members in tapping into the unique human and civic potential that a gig can unleash. Gigabit speed Internet access is now treated as elemental to human and community potential rather than as a competitive advantage. Places operating on a gig opened everyone’s mind to the next level of possibilities in the ways broadband could bring together individuals and communities, and brought distant cities and people closer together than any other technology that had come before.

Another thing that I recall happening early on is that in the next few years you will witness an ongoing, spirited debate about whether or not the digital divide still exists or if smartphones have addressed it.  Where you sit right now, the digital divide is still a big deal, but this question of smartphones will end up being easier to resolve than you might anticipate. Just tell people to take a step back, a couple of deep breaths, and figure out how they each understand the digital divide. Ask them questions about what they do and don’t do on their smartphones. People will basically say that their smartphones are great when institutions, businesses, and government specifically design for them. You’ll probably get a few coders and content creators who say “Actually, I can’t do my job on a smartphone” and people with school-aged children who say that their kids require more than a smartphone and a data plan to do their homework. Other people may insist that smartphones really have addressed the digital divide because they primarily use a smartphone and they feel that it is definitely adequate for everyone else’s needs as well. They may even point to recent data which shows that community members traditionally thought to be the most adversely impacted by the digital divide, particularly low-income youth of color, are particularly reliant on smartphones for online access. And this is true! Let the conversation flow. All of this is important to discuss. Once people got on the same page, it didn’t take long for everyone to acknowledge the asset that smartphones have been in addressing some dimensions of the digital divide and ultimately embrace the opportunity to collectively own the responsibility to address the rest. Government in particular became very empowered to continue designing with mobility in mind to meet users where they are at and markedly increased efforts to support increased home broadband adoption and advance digital literacy.

It was also just about the same time that the civic tech and digital inclusion communities began working together to a much greater effect. As you’ll recall, the civic tech world was working hard at this time to transform the relationship between people and government through technology.   While many tools were launched that revolutionized how citizens and government work together, things hit a fairly hard ceiling in 2020. Broadband ecosystems in rural, suburban, and urban communities began to act as the limiting reagent, such that even the greatest design visionaries within this space found that they were maxing out on the potential of smartphone-driven solutions. In cities lacking public Wi-Fi networks, data caps hindered full online engagement. Home broadband adoption continued to lag at this time due to digital inclusion challenges such as affordability and relevancy. It became clear that the on-ramp to full participation in the transformation of the relationship between people and government was jammed. Ever the visionaries and collaborators, this was a turning point for the civic tech community – suddenly a field that was widely understood as creating tools for people to connect with and transform government became a field that was also working hand-in-hand with the digital inclusion community to advocate for government and the private sector to make full digital citizenship a funded priority. These communities became unified in the pursuit of comprehensive, equity-driven broadband progress across the United States.

Another one of the very proactive measures that will start taking hold on a much wider basis within the next five years is the integration of broadband planning with all things digging and building. As you can predict, this was not very hard to do. From government to the private sector, newcomers and old pros alike will work together at the city level to coordinate their workflows around synergistic broadband action. Even as you read this letter, several places across the country have already demonstrated the value of “dig once” policies and practices. To them, designing with broadband in mind is actually old news! Places like Santa Monica, CA have become well known for the long-term benefits of a well implemented dig once policy. Through their Connected Community Standard the City of Loma Linda, CA will inspire cities to integrate broadband into their own building codes. Next Century Cities’ 2015 policy agenda will act as a turbo-shot in creating more energy for the exploration of these and other measures that cities will employ to pave the way for a bright broadband future.

Get ready for it. Are you ready? Ok. In the next few years, you will need to devote a great deal of attention to co-evolving your broadband infrastructure vision and your smart cities vision. One of the most interesting, albeit higher stakes, pieces of this puzzle is the ownership structure of the underlying broadband network you will need to do great, life enriching things with within the realm of Internet of Things (IoT). This is an area where the principles of municipal self-determination in creating and enacting local broadband strategy will play a big role.

Thanks so much 2015 for taking a look through all of this! Couldn’t be more excited for you!

Best wishes,
2050

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