The Pursuit of Economic Opportunity Requires Broadband Oriented Development

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.

May 12, 2014 | Urban Sustainability | 0 comments

This blog post is a response to the Meeting of the Minds & Living Cities group blogging event which asks, “How could cities better connect all their residents to economic opportunity?”

Recent years have brought a number of exciting developments in the ways cities connect all residents to economic opportunity.  Cities across the country are making early childhood education a high and lasting priority through citywide pre-k programs.  Knowledge regarding the impact of place on life chances is now codified in federal place-based policy initiatives. Workforce development initiatives in advanced manufacturing prepare people for important new roles in the resurgence of American manufacturing.  The list goes on.

We cannot, however, take for granted that these initiatives alone will not facilitate access to economic opportunity for all residents.  There are a number of foundational elements that must be in place if people are to convert hard work and access to these and other resources into actual economic opportunity.  Some of these elements include affordable and dependable care for children, elders, and family members with special needs; affordable, convenient, and reliable transportation; and housing that is affordable and safe for children and adults.  Somewhat new to this set of essential foundational elements in the 21st century is access to the Internet through affordable broadband.

Broadband by itself does not equate to economic opportunity, but, when paired with human capability, helps individuals actualize their full potential during each phase of life.  We depend on broadband before we are even aware that it exists – through family members and others around us using it to access the labor market, take online courses, manage finances, and find opportunities for themselves and us.  Through this lens of economic opportunity, broadband is best understood as an ecology that allows places and people to adapt, evolve, and create.

Unfortunately, at present broadband in US cities is an ecological system in ruin.  Lack of competition among broadband service providers has led to US consumers in major cities paying higher prices for slower speeds than their fellow broadband users abroad.  Legal barriers to the creation of local broadband infrastructure solutions has made it difficult if not nearly impossible for cities to offer their stakeholders access to the best of this technology at a truly affordable price.  To top it all off, 19 million Americans have no option to buy fixed broadband Internet service where they live. An additional 100 million who do have the option have not yet adopted broadband in the home.

To set broadband on a course that addresses the need for people and institutions within cities to fully pursue all that the 21st century offers, we need a framework that engages stakeholders across geographic scales, institutions, and sectors in creating systemic solutions.  In order to move the agenda forward, cities must apply a ‘broadband oriented development’ (BOD) framework.  Similar to transit oriented development, BOD unites the infrastructural and human components of broadband to address connectivity now and lay a foundation for the future.  As it is currently envisioned, BOD has three major components – 1) municipal determination, 2) regional coordination, and 3) aggressive efforts to increase broadband adoption.

Municipal determination

A recent report by the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute (OTI) provides a look into the profound impact that public broadband networks have had on communities across the country.  We learn through this report that this is not a terribly new idea.  The first municipally run network was launched nearly two decades ago in Glasgow, Kentucky.  Today more than 100 cities and towns provide broadband service to homes and businesses.  On top of that, hundreds more localities provide cutting-edge communications services to schools, libraries, hospitals, and senior centers.

Is it really necessary for municipalities and public utilities to go into the broadband business? In spite of the benefits that many communities have derived from such networks, the appropriate choice for others may in fact be to hold back for now.  As demonstrated in the OTI report, a community must carefully examine the issues of control, risk, and reward as it begins to consider this model.

With all that said, communities that have made the decision to pursue municipal broadband have been met with success in generating significant public savings, creating jobs, and providing a platform for individuals, businesses, and anchor institutions to not only reach goals of the present but also imagine and pursue a future made possible only through full access to broadband.  We may soon see broader proliferation of municipal networks as the FCC has indicated plans to help remove legal barriers to their creation.

Regional Coordination

Close and ongoing coordination among cities within the same metropolitan region is critical to BOD.  A competitive ‘I have it and you don’t’ approach may bolster business attraction and cost savings for individual cities in the short term but will ultimately compromise the overall vitality of the metro area, creating unequal access to educational and career opportunities for the people who live there.  Deployment of fast and affordable broadband within a region, whether public or not, could benefit from the type of metropolitan scale strategy that Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley point to in Metropolitan Revolution.

Regional scale coordination also holds the potential to bring high-speed, affordable broadband to people living in suburbs.  This is especially relevant when we consider that poverty in suburbs is rising faster than in any other setting in the country.  Suburban areas are now home to one-third of the United States’ poor population.  This outranks cities (27.5 percent), small metro areas (20.5 percent), and non-metropolitan communities (18.7 percent).  Low-income suburban households also need affordable access if they are to be on even footing with others striving to innovate and reach their potential within the regional economy.

Just as regional scale transit management allows people to get from A to B and back in the course of work, educational, civic, and family life (think MBTA, MTA, BART) so too might regional scale deployment of the infrastructure that does the same for the data encoding our aspirations and responsibilities in each of these areas (think MBBA, MBA, and BARB).

Aggressive efforts to increase broadband adoption

The millions of Americans not yet connected to broadband in the home cannot wait for affordable municipal broadband to be deployed where they live.  Remaining unconnected at home leaves them at a distinct disadvantage in the pursuit of economic opportunity.  It also means that the places where they live, work, and go to school will not benefit fully from their hard work in this pursuit.

A number of initiatives across the country are moving the needle on adoption.  At the national level, EveryoneOn is working to eliminate the digital divide by making high-speed, low-cost broadband, computers, and free digital literacy accessible to all unconnected Americans.  Through EveryoneOn, a low-income individual or household can access home broadband service for $10 or less per month and for $150 can purchase a computer.

Operating at the local level are programs such as Connecting for Good in Kansas City, Missouri and Tech Goes Home in Boston, Massachusetts.  Program offerings for each include education in web skills, access to affordable hardware, and support in getting on the web at home.

Tech Goes Home places significant emphasis on training, offering 15 hours of free, hands-on technology and online resource instruction.  This component of their program is delivered by qualified trainers within the community and schools where the trainings occur.  The program has trained over 12,000 new home-broadband users since 2010.  More than 90% of program graduates subscribe to and maintain Internet access in their homes long after program completion.  The Tech Goes Home model is now being replicated in other parts of the country.

Connecting for Good has taken a highly unique approach to home Internet access by becoming a lead partner in the KC Freedom Network, a nonprofit wireless ISP.  This has allowed them to provide free in-home Wi-Fi connections to over 500 low-income households, primarily in three public housing developments.  Program participants go home and get on the web with the certainty that they can stay on the web.

An important dimension of BOD’s aggressive approach to adoption is the integration of efforts to increase adoption of home broadband with initiatives related to P-20 education, workforce development, healthcare, recidivism prevention, and more.  By building home broadband adoption into the design of these initiatives, the city agencies, community based organizations, and anchor institutions that run them might find the effort that participants put into these programs go further.

So what’s next?  Whether a city has already created and maintained a healthy broadband ecosystem or is just beginning to think about what a healthy ecosystem could mean for their community, it is critical to understand that there is always room for growth.  A BOD approach challenges cities that already have a municipal broadband network to think about what additional gains they can make in collaborating with neighboring communities and engaging with non-adopters.  It enables entities such as non-profit organizations and city school districts to work with families as true peers in the pursuit of economic opportunity.  BOD asks anchor institutions such as higher eds and hospitals to commit more fully to the success of their current and future students, workers, and patients.  Like the Internet itself, the possibilities are endless.  What might BOD do for you?

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