Municipal Fiber and the Digital Divide: A Modest Proposal

This is a guest post by Angela Siefer and Bill Callahan.

fiber_optics_2With a little effort, city leaders could develop account-sharing models and policies that encourage smart, grassroots solutions to the affordable broadband problem at little or no public cost. (Getty Images)

The explosion of interest in community-owned fiber on the part of elected officials and technology leaders has created an opportunity that few have noticed: cities could leverage these investments to help lower the barriers to home Internet access that still keep low-income, less educated and older citizens out of the digital mainstream. This could be easily accomplished, at it would cost cities practically nothing.

Here’s how: cities could allow neighboring households and community groups to share that terrific bandwidth – and its cost – by using community-owned fiber to power grassroots Wi-Fi networks.

Almost all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and community-owned fiber networks employ Terms of Service language that prohibits customers from extending their networks across property lines to share access with their neighbors. City-owned networks can expand the possibilities for affordable broadband access in disadvantaged neighborhoods simply by changing their Terms of Service to allow network sharing.

As demonstrated by the rise of Google Fiber, the advent of city-owned networks selling 100 megabit or gigabit Internet access for $75, $90 or $100 a month raises the competitive ante on broadband speed and price for traditional cable and telecommunications ISPs. This is great news for tech-savvy middle- and upper-income residents, as well as for data-dependent businesses and community anchor institutions like libraries and hospitals.

But in many city neighborhoods, we’re faced with the stubborn fact that large numbers of mostly low-income citizens still don’t have home Internet access at any speed.

The American Community Survey for 2013 reports data for 575 U.S. “places” with more than 15,000 households. 282 of these communities – nearly half – reported no fixed broadband connections (defined as any connection beyond dial-up or mobile) in at least 30 percent of their homes. 151 reported that at least one fourth of their households have no home Internet access of any kind – no dial-up, no mobile access; nothing. Not surprisingly, these Internet-free households are concentrated in low-income neighborhoods where residents are least able to afford the $30, $40 or $50 monthly cost of an Internet service subscription.

Of course, low-income households that can’t afford current DSL or cable Internet services have little to gain from the availability of fiber broadband service that costs twice as much.

But suppose that cost could be split among five, ten or twenty users?

One of the great value propositions of Big Bandwidth is its shareability. There’s not much a single household can do with a gigabit connection that couldn’t be accomplished with a tenth (100 mbps), a twentieth (50 mbps) or even a fortieth (25 mbps) of that capacity. But put that gigabit connection into an office, a call center or library where forty, fifty or more users share it, and its value becomes apparent. All the users sharing that gigabit start connecting to the Internet at speeds far greater than their “shares” (because of how network routers optimize and balance packet streams) – and at a total cost far below the equivalent number of single-user accounts.

The economic advantage of networked access sharing has been so obvious for so long that no business or organization would even think about buying individual Internet service accounts for employees working at the same location – and no ISPs would waste time trying to sell them. Since home broadband took root a decade ago, the same has become true of households; we provide for our family members’ need to connect simultaneously in different parts of our homes with routers, network cables and Wi-Fi – not by subscribing to multiple Internet service accounts.

ISPs are happy to encourage all this access sharing within their customers’ premises. But they draw the line – a hard, bright line written into their Terms of Service – when it comes to letting customers share their network with the neighbors. The reasons are commercial, not technical; ISPs make money on account charges, and they don’t want their customers to get ideas about avoiding them. It’s a profit-driven business model.

But municipal broadband networks don’t have to follow that model.

Over the past eight years, cheap, modular “open mesh” Wi-Fi devices have transformed the possibilities for community networking at the very local level – the apartment building, housing estate or city block. Any building owner or group of neighbors can acquire a few of these devices for less than a hundred dollars each, distribute them at 100-200 foot intervals around a target area, connect at least one of them to the Internet, and start distributing robust, secure Wi-Fi Internet throughout the area.

Open mesh networks are providing public or “house” Internet access in thousands of hotels, apartment complexes, campuses and campgrounds. These networks are also found in some public housing estates and high-rises, installed by local housing authorities who understand the importance of affordable Internet for tenants’ income and education prospects.

There’s no technical reason why block clubs and community organizations in lower-income neighborhoods can’t use this same cheap, off-the-shelf technology to create truly affordable local broadband access, by sharing connections and costs among neighboring households. But unlike the people running apartment buildings, campgrounds and hotels, community residents will almost always find that Terms of Service restrict them from sharing bandwidth with their neighbors, at any price.

Municipal broadband providers can solve this problem with the stroke of a pen, simply by allowing neighborhood account sharing in their Terms of Service.

With a little effort, city leaders could take the next step: Working with neighborhood leaders and digital inclusion advocates to develop account-sharing models and policies that encourage smart, grassroots solutions to the affordable broadband problem at little or no public cost.

Angela Siefer 150wAbout the Authors: Angela Siefer is a digital inclusion consultant and an adjunct fellow at the Pell Center at Salve Regina University. She envisions a world in which all members of society have the skills and the resources to use the Internet for the betterment of themselves and their communities.

bill callahan 150wBill Callahan is a Cleveland-based community organizer who has worked for the past twenty years on grassroots training and access strategies to close the digital divide. He currently serves as the director of Connect Your Community, a collaborative of community-based digital inclusion advocates in greater Cleveland and Detroit.

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