Along with the many challenges brought on by COVID-19, this pandemic has held a mirror up to the nation and laid bare structural inequities across our institutions that we need to reckon with. This difficult truth has, unfortunately, been brought to light by the hardships suffered by some of this country’s most vulnerable populations. Of the many things we can focus on at the local level to begin to right the ship, the one that stands out most at this juncture is broadband.
The “digital divide” is one example of inequality in the United States with extremely high stakes. The FCC reports that as of 2018, 24 million Americans didn’t have access to broadband internet at home. That may seem trivial when you consider that the U.S. population in 2018 was about 327.2 million, making 24 million roughly 7% of the population. But when you look more closely at that 24 million, it becomes even more problematic. A total of 22.3% of Americans in rural areas and 27.7% of Americans in tribal lands lack broadband coverage, compared to just 1.5% of Americans in urban areas. Similarly, a 2019 survey indicates that just 56% of low-income families have home internet, as opposed to 81% and 94% of middle- and high-income families, respectively. Low-income and people of color are consistently underserved, and this doesn’t stop when it comes to broadband. Without in-home broadband adoption, and now limited access to public anchor institutions due to the pandemic, we risk these groups getting even further behind in educational and health outcomes, and more. Additionally, widespread access to broadband in a given community significantly improves the quality of life for its residents and makes it more attractive for economic development opportunities.
Significance of Broadband
Broadband is a requirement for a sound quality of life and economic vitality and is crucial to ensuring equitable access to educational opportunities. As such, we need to start to consider that broadband is a utility, not a luxury, and think about how to treat it as such. It is unfathomable to think about neighborhoods going without water, electricity, or gas, and broadband should be regarded as just as critical to the livelihoods of residents. Because regulations on utilities and utility management vary from state to state, treating broadband as a utility could get quite complicated. At the local level, though, there are a handful of actions governments can take to begin to address the digital divide.
What Can City/County Governments Do?
- Start laying dark fiber. With every transportation infrastructure project comes the opportunity to lay fiber optic cables into the ground that can later be utilized by internet providers through public-private partnerships. Fiber internet has yet to be widely adopted, largely due to the high cost of installing the cable. This ends up being costly because it requires building a fiber optic cable network underground, which entails a lot of digging. When starting major street construction projects, consider laying fiber as often as you can as there will be a lot of digging already happening. With copper cable-powered broadband slowly becoming obsolete, the installation of fiber is one way to begin future-proofing your community. This infrastructure can also eventually be sold to private internet service providers who may have previously been reluctant to service the area.
- Reconsider infrastructure and economic development priorities, including the permitting process for private organizations. Depending on the community, the permitting process for private companies to access these public rights-of-way to install fiber cables can be a major deterrent for these organizations to pursue these projects. Because the installation process requires trenches to be dug along public roads, private companies need permits for these projects. These vary by state and municipality, but are typically the most difficult along highways and arterial roads.
- Consider a municipal broadband network. Depending on where you live, this may not be realistic. Many states have restrictions or outright bans on municipal broadband. If you’re in one of the many states that allow for these networks, consider this investment. If you’re not, consider lobbying for the right to ownership of this invaluable asset. These networks are less expensive for residents than those owned by privately owned telecom companies, and allow local governments control over this important utility. Middle-mile and last-mile service has been pursued by over 500 municipalities in the United States, many of which are rural.
- Engage the private sector. Public-private partnerships can create more opportunities for access to the latest technology and yield faster results than taking on a large-scale project alone. The private sector dominates in providing internet service, but they’re historically less likely to prioritize rural areas. A partnership between a municipality and private service provider creates a synergy whereby the private sector has an incentive to service an area and less of a risk in low ROI, and the municipality can, in turn, provide the community with a much-needed service.
- Prioritize funding for community anchor institutions. When publicly supported broadband networks aren’t an option (or even when they are), anchor institutions such as libraries and schools are critical to internet access for many students and families, and are notoriously underfunded. For families that don’t have internet at home or who don’t have the proper devices, these institutions are vital for access to education.
- Work with the community. Many local organizations seek to close the digital divide by providing students with computers, offering education on the best resources, and offering digital literacy workshops, etc. Partnering with and supporting these organizations makes a significant difference in their ability to fulfill their mission and get students connected.
- Pursue rural broadband grants. The federal government and many state governments and NGOs have grant programs in place to assist with the deployment of broadband into rural areas. These grants can cover the costs of anything from the planning associated with developing a broadband strategy to the actual infrastructure.
The prioritization of broadband at the local level is both an opportunity and a necessity. We are in a pivotal moment as we continue to make decisions about economic recovery in the wake of COVID-19 and, in this moment, we have a collective responsibility to rethink our approach to infrastructure and economic development by prioritizing broadband access throughout our communities. Doing so is a necessary investment that will allow us to start to meaningfully address the digital divide and ensure access to opportunity for all citizens.
The digital divide does not exist in a vacuum that only local governments can reach. Closing this gap is going to take time and money from every level of government and large-scale cooperation with the private sector to fully address. But there are small, incremental steps that we can take to start addressing this problem in the near term that will yield significant long-term benefits for our communities. And that’s at the most basic level. The deployment of broadband infrastructure will also enable us to realize long-term goals and opportunities related to placemaking and economic development.
While the absence of broadband coverage and access may be inscrutable to the vast majority of Americans, it is a reality that millions are currently living with and it is time for a change.