The Gallery: Lighting our Digital Future for All

state house gallery

A couple of weeks ago, speaking to the US Conference of Mayors, Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen painted a rosy picture of broadband in America, dismissing critics as having an “agenda.” The issue, he said, “is really more about demand than supply.” Mr. Cohen went on to say that communities should instead focus their attention on getting their residents online, citing the relatively low number of people of color and people with lower incomes who are online compared with people who are non-Hispanic white. “At Comcast,” he said, “we don’t find this acceptable.”

I’m glad he doesn’t. Because neither do we. And neither do communities like Chattanooga, Chicago, Kansas City, Seattle, Austin, Gainesville, Champaign-Urbana, Provo and others who have taken their bandwidth destinies into their own hands. In my work with Gig.U, a coalition of research university communities working to accelerate next generation networks, I have worked with many communities that care about equity and internet access.

Getting better, faster broadband networks requires that communities forge new relationships with communications providers. Those new relationships raise important questions about broadband and technology access. Some have suggested that the new projects above are troubling because companies are not explicitly required to build the network everywhere. People worry that companies will “cherry pick” where to provide service and networks will not come to neighborhoods where people have lower incomes and that our economy and society have traditionally left underserved. This premise—that essential infrastructure should be available to all—is sound, but it misses a larger point.

First, in the past, telecommunications and cable companies agreed to build out everywhere in exchange for a government-granted monopoly. Those monopolies no longer exist. Therefore, communities must find new ways to protect their digital futures and rely on themselves to get better, faster networks.

The mayors and leaders in Gig.U communities and others understand there are trade-offs, but all have made digital equity part of the package. Besides pushing for affordable prices for next generation services, these communities have sought public Wi-Fi zones, emphasized bringing services to traditionally underserved areas and required world-leading connections for their community anchor institutions like schools and hospitals as part of the deal struck with providers.

Which leads me to my second point: by taking their digital health and future firmly of ALL their residents than communities that wait for an upgrade to come. Unlike Mr. Cohen, most of these communities do not consider these goals—higher speeds and more citizens online—to be in conflict.

Through our research for the National Broadband Plan, we know one third of Americans do not have broadband at home. We also learned that people new to technology need a “social infrastructure for adoption.” In addition to the basic tools to get online—a device and a connection—people rely on their social and community networks to help them understand the value of something new. This social dimension is critically important to current broadband non-adopters. Research has shown people without broadband at home are likely to have fewer broadband users in their social network, thus missing out on a stimulant to getting online.

But here is the silver lining: communities that work to improve their connectivity and vocally support the community’s use of that infrastructure, are better positioned to support newer technology users. Communities that prioritize and publicize broadband, and plan how to use it at school and work, are more likely to support the digital health of all residents. Our research indicates that states with high levels of investment in planning for broadband and its use stand a better chance of seeing economic benefits from that infrastructure.

Consider what happened after Google Fiber announced it was coming to the Kansas Cities. The mayors of both cities created a team to develop a playbook for how to make the most of this opportunity, including increasing adoption. With the rollout underway, there is a Digital Drive team charged with implementing the plan. And the fiber has galvanized other initiatives, like Connecting for Good, a non-profit focused on bridging the digital divide. Chicago, Seattle, communities in North Carolina, Urbana-Champaign have similar initiatives.

Incorporating the idea of faster, cheaper, better broadband into our social fabric will lead to sweeping changes in our communities. Just as we experience “nightlife” because of the attraction of the great American streets lit up in electrical experiments and praise our “energetic” entrepreneurs because electricity taught us to value speed and dynamism, so will this country’s experiments with next generation networks change the world—for everyone.

Ellen Satterwhite is Technology Policy Consultant and Program Director for Gig.U. Prior to joining the project, Ellen was Consumer Policy Advisor to the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau. She was responsible for consumer research and analysis of emerging trends in communications services for the Bureau. In this role, she also supported the Commission’s agendas on education and broadband adoption. Ellen co-authored the Commission’s first surveys of broadband non-adopters and business subscribers and led analysis of these data for the National Broadband Plan. Follow her on Twitter: @esatts.

The Gallery is a forum for ideas and examination of matters facing state and local government. Readers, members of the media, academics or the business community are invited to submit guest columns to bailey{at}civsourceonline{dot}com. Member of the public sector? We’re interested in hearing from you too. CivSource does not endorse the views presented in The Gallery, but offers them in an effort to present more diverse coverage. CivSource will review all submissions but does not guarantee publication of all works submitted.