Broadband Isn’t a Luxury – It’s Infrastructure

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As Arlington, Texas, Mayor Pro Tempore Sheri Capehart notes, closing the broadband adoption gap is where city leaders can shine.

(Image courtesy of the City of Arlington)
Six Flags amusement park rises above the skyline of Arlington, Texas. The city has crafted a unique plan to bring broadband access to residents scattered over a 99-square-mile area. (Image courtesy of the City of Arlington)

This is a guest post by Arlington, Texas, Mayor Pro Tempore Sheri Capehart.

In Arlington, Texas, parents can enroll their children in their neighborhood schools; students can take classes and submit assignments; residents can pay bills, taxes, and permit fees; and our neighbors can find new jobs without leaving home, provided they have in-home broadband access. In Arlington, as in many other communities around the nation, residents without that in-home connection to the Internet are being left behind. As more and more critical functions of daily life move online, two major roadblocks prevent large numbers of our neighbors from fully participating in our 21st century society: insufficient access to a broadband network, and insufficient adoption of broadband where it is available.

Broadband is different from most other kinds of infrastructure in our communities. Aside from municipal networks, it is built, maintained, and operated privately, and subject to market influences in a way that sewers, electrical grids, and roads are not. Despite that difference, city leaders need to actively plan for broadband infrastructure, and ensure access for their residents’ needs for the future. Smart city initiatives, networked traffic controls, and innovative transit solutions all require communities to have sufficient, resilient wired and wireless infrastructure.

However, simply building poles and conduit are not enough. Despite the increasing importance of connectivity, too many Americans living in communities with at least one broadband provider are not online. In 2015, more than 90% of households earning more than $100,000 annually had in-home access to broadband – but just under half of households earning less than $25,000 per year did. The reasons for this digital inequity vary from household to household. For many, the cost of a high-speed Internet subscription and a computer or tablet to access it is too much. For others, language barriers may prevent households from navigating the retail market for broadband plans and technology. Still more residents may feel intimidated by computers, or may feel that Internet access is not important or relevant to them.

Closing this adoption gap is where city leaders can shine. City leaders are perfectly positioned to connect residents with resources, and to coordinate neighborhoods, public investment, and private resources to meet the specific needs of their communities. Some communities may need technology skills training in a language other than English to serve a large population that speaks English as a second language. Other communities may need to collaborate with their Internet service providers to match low-income residents with subsidies and discount programs to help them get computers and affordable broadband subscriptions. City leaders need to craft plans that fit their communities.

For example, Arlington’s residents are distributed over 99 square miles, making it difficult to reach all residents with a single centralized community technology center. That’s why the Arlington Public Library launched its TechLink program in 2013 to bring technology skills, access, and training at no cost to residents throughout our entire city. TechLink is a rolling computer lab, housed in a bus that can easily reach community centers, senior citizen housing, and neighborhoods without easy access to a community library. The city used a grant from the Broadband Technology and Opportunities Program (part of the Recovery Act) to fund the bus, and worked with local provider AT&T to provide the bus with wireless internet access.

The needs of your residents and the resources available to your city are probably different from Arlington’s. If you are struggling with where to begin tackling the digital divide in your city, tools are available to help you. This week, as part of its recognition of Infrastructure Week 2016, NLC hosted a webinar with the National Association of Counties and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) on planning a community broadband roadmap. With a new toolkit from NTIA, your city can walk through a six-step process of assessing your community’s needs and formulating a plan to address them. In addition, NTIA offers technical assistance to cities who need help researching funding opportunities, researching community needs, and implementing their plans.

During Infrastructure Week, we have been reminded that without attention to and investment in all of our infrastructure, people are hurt and communities are left behind. Cities focused on their own digital future, and on ensuring all their residents have meaningful digital connections to the world, are making an investment in their communities that is no less important than building a strong bridge or safe water lines.

About the Author: Sheri Capehart is Mayor Pro Tempore of the City of Arlington, Texas, and Chair of NLC’s Information Technology and Communications Committee.