Cities See Urgency in Closing Digital Divide (and How They’re Doing It)

By Kevin Ebi.

Broadband Internet isn’t something that’s just nice to have anymore. A study finds it can have dramatic impacts on people’s ability to use public transit, access health care and even find a job.

That’s prompting cities to step up their efforts to ensure residents not only have it, but also know how to use it. And some are having to find creative ways, including teaming with other cities, to get high-speed service when traditional service providers won’t offer it.

Digital divide hurts communities
A Chicago program to help close the digital divide also ended up providing evidence of how costly the gap can be. Starting in 2008, the city identified key neighborhoods where Internet use was low and developed training and outreach programs to help residents.

The city tracks usage on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis, and found that five years later, residents of those low- and moderate-income neighborhoods touched through the program were significantly more likely to have and use broadband Internet than those who weren’t.

Further, residents of the targeted communities were more likely to use the Internet for job searches, finding health care, and researching public transportation than other communities. The typical gap for each of those topics was greater than 10 percentage points.

Keeping up with gigabit
But even communities where online literacy is high are suffering from a digital divide. As more cities are getting gigabit service, those that don’t have it are starting to worry about being left out. Blair Levin, a former FCC official who was responsible for the National Broadband Plan, tells Ars Technica that “having world-class bandwidth is maybe even more important than having an NFL football team.”

The problem is even though the cities desperately want the service, companies don’t necessarily want to make the investment to provide it. Rather than wait, however, cities are doing what they can to win those fiber investments now.

Some, such as Lexington, Ky., are trying to use legal leverage, threatening to try to block Comcast’s merger with Time Warner unless conditions are met. Others are trying to win federal approval to go around state laws that block them from starting their owngigabit services.

Another strategy is to create incentives that help get the necessary infrastructure in place. A number of cities are starting “dig once” policies that require crews to install conduit for fiber cable whenever they are digging for any purpose, such as electrical and sewer projects. Still others are working down the Google Fiber checklist, even if Google isn’t interested in them. The hope is that work will also be attractive to other providers.

A new coalition
Still others believe there is strength in numbers. More than 30 cities across the United States have formed Next Century Cities, a collective where they will share resources, best practices, and even try to work together to get the quality Internet access they crave.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said he was excited to see the bi-partisan effort, believing it may help inspire needed competition in the market for broadband service. In a video presentation at the group’s first meeting, Wheeler said, “Competition drives broadband. It’s that simple.”

Originally posted at Smart Cities Council.

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