Want to Close the Digital Divide? For Cities, Partnerships Are Key

In New York, the Bronx city government was able to provide 5,000 families living in public housing with tablets and internet service. Here’s how they did it.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (center), along with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro (left) and Terry Hayes, Senior Vice President, Northeast Region, T-Mobile, gather in December 2016 to celebrate the work to connect 5,000 families living in public housing in the Bronx with tablets and internet service. (photo: EveryoneOn)

This is a guest post by Chike Aguh.

In New York City, approximately 20 percent of households currently don’t have the internet at home and have no mobile internet options. In the Bronx, it is a staggering 26 percent of households. The majority of the unconnected are minority and poor.

At EveryoneOn, we have seen this time and time again: low-income individuals yearning for a connection to the digital world but not being able to find a way to afford it. Luckily, cities are meeting this call and implementing public-private partnership solutions.

For example, in 2016, the Bronx city government worked with T-Mobile to provide 5,000 families living in public housing with tablets and internet service. It was a $2 million investment, and part of a larger $10 million commitment by the New York City government to bring affordable internet access to all of New York City by 2025.

“Increasing internet access across the city is not just a noble goal – it’s a necessary one. These days, the internet is virtually a requirement for people searching for jobs or students doing homework,” said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Along with free Wi-Fi internet through T-Mobile networks, the 5,000 residents were given tablets loaded with applications and links to city services. In addition, residents were offered information sessions on how to use the tablets. By combining these efforts with digital literacy training from the New York Public Library’s Bronx branches, residents now have access to the three-legged stool of digital inclusion: affordable internet access, a device on which to access the internet, and training on how to use both.

During the launch, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Julián Castro highlighted HUD’s innovative ConnectHome program, which connects residents in HUD-assisted housing, and praised New York City’s commitment to digital inclusion efforts.

“The ConnectHome program is providing children and families with the tools they need to stay competitive in this 21st century global economy,” said Castro in a news release. “With this new commitment to ConnectHome, T-Mobile and the city of New York are making a meaningful impact to close the digital divide for thousands of New York public housing residents.”

While the Bronx and New York City – along with other cities such as Seattle, Kansas City, Missouri, and Charlotte, North Carolina – have helped close the digital divide, the United States as a whole still has a long way to go in making sure that all people have access to the life-altering power of the internet. According to the American Community Survey, more than 60 million people are currently living on the wrong side of the digital divide. This divide affects both rural and urban residents, but disproportionately those that are poor and minority.

This lack of access and use of the internet impacts almost every aspect of daily lives. For example, Pew Research has found that approximately 80 percent of students need the internet to complete their homework, and that the vast majority of people have used the internet to research and apply for jobs. If you have the internet at home, high school graduation is more likely, which can lead to $2 million more in lifetime earnings.

These are just a few of the numbers that can be improved if we work together to connect people to the internet at home. At EveryoneOn, we have worked since 2012 to help connect people to the social and economic opportunities provided by the internet. So far, we have connected more than 400,000 people in the United States, with the goal of connecting one million people by 2020.

We believe that partnerships are a way for all cities to meet the digital needs of their residents. For cities and communities, support of digital inclusion efforts through community planning, public-private partnerships and monetary investments are substantial ways to help the unconnected enter the digital on-ramp. By working together, the goal of ending this digital divide is attainable. The digital inclusion needle can be moved with just a little push.

About the author: Chike Aguh is the chief executive officer of EveryoneOn, a national nonprofit that creates social and economic opportunity by connecting everyone to the internet. EveryoneOn serves as the nonprofit lead of HUD’s ConnectHome program. Follow Chike on Twitter @CRAguh or EveryoneOn @Everyone_On.

Meet Your City Technology and Communications Advocate

“It can seem tempting to default on the side of industry in the hopes of spurring innovation, but obviously you cannot prioritize the needs of one entity or company over those of all the other actors in the room – namely, local governments.”

Every week leading up to the Congressional City Conference, we will continue to feature “Meet Your City Advocate” spotlights as part of a series introducing you to NLC’s Federal Advocacy team. This week, I sat down with Angelina Panettieri, principal associate for technology and communications advocacy at NLC.

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Angelina Panettieri is the principal associate for technology and communications at NLC (Brian Egan/NLC).

Name: Angelina Panettieri
Area of expertise: Technology and Communications
Hometown: near Winchester, Virginia
Federal Advocacy Committee: Information Technology & Communications (ITC)

Angelina, thanks for your time today. To start off, can you tell us about your background?

I grew up out in the country near Winchester, Virginia. So, fun fact: I never lived in a real city until college. Undergrad was the first time I lived in a place with sidewalks. I earned a BA and an MPA from George Mason University. I always knew I wanted to work in policy, and have worked for several other organizations before joining NLC. One of my first jobs was with a group that represented smaller chemical companies. I later joined an association that works with pharmacists. Now I work in technology and communications policy for cities, so you can see that I’ve always been interested in wonky technical topics. I started at NLC a few years back, working in grassroots advocacy.

So what specifically attracted you to technology and communications policy? 

It always interested me. It’s an area that seems to be growing. Technology and communications are areas that will likely shape our lives the most over the immediate future — and that means a lot for cities. Technology is starting to determine how we move around, what our housing looks like, what are jobs are, how we treat our patients.

There’s something we often say — broadband is no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity. I compare it to the rural electrification project. Like the families that remained off-the-grid in the first half of the 20th century, we’re rapidly moving toward a world where internet is a necessary ingredient to success. Many people don’t realize that a huge portion of NLC’s members are small cities, and these are the places that are still working to get online. It’s exciting for me to advocate for them.

What do you think 2017 has in store for technology and communication policy, as far as cities are concerned?

I think this year will be interesting. We haven’t heard a lot from the president about where he wants to take tech policy – other than outspoken support for infrastructure and manufacturing, which will inevitably involve technology. Congress has had a backlog of technology-focused bills that they were not able to pass last year; I expect they will have more success this year. These bills are largely noncontroversial: expanding available spectrum, incentivizing infrastructure that includes broadband, etcetera. There are two places, however, that I think we should focus on: the FCC and state legislatures.

The new FCC chair, Commissioner Ajit Pai, has already indicated that he will shake things up over there. Our goal is to maintain a dialogue with all the commissioners and ensure that major policy changes are only made after the needs of cities have been considered. It can seem tempting to default on the side of industry in the hopes of spurring innovation, but obviously you cannot prioritize the needs of one entity or company over those of all the other actors in the room, namely local governments.

On the state side of things, we are seeing telecom and other technology bills moving very quickly through state houses. NLC doesn’t lobby state legislatures, but in this policy area in particular, we are seeing states drive a lot of what’s happening on the ground. I think Congress will continue to watch what’s happening in states as inspiration for federal policy in the future. But I may be jumping ahead to a 2018 or 2019 prediction.

Did you want to touch upon the 5G comment period going on right now?

Yes, of course! We’re involved in a proceeding at the FCC that’s focused on the local government permitting process for small cell wireless infrastructure. This is all leading up to the deployment of a new 5G wireless standard. The wireless industry is working to provide faster service to its customers, which requires moving up the spectrum. As you go higher, you need smaller antennas to broadcast a signal, and you need many more of them located closer together.

It’s a competition to offer the best 5G first, which means every company has already started applying for permits to install hundreds of thousands of these “small cells.” Now, the FCC is looking into whether existing regulations and permitting processes – mostly at the local level – are slowing this deployment down. NLC is most concerned about maintaining cities’ rights to protect their residents’ rights of way, and ensuring that they continue to get proper compensation for its use. 5G needs to happen without overwhelming and ignoring the needs of local governments.

Fascinating! And now for the hardest question: what’s your spirit city?

I have had a lot of time to think about this, so I can say with certainty: Wildwood, New Jersey.

Get out! You know I’m a South Jersey kid, so shore trips to Wildwood define my childhood.

I did not know that!

I’m glad someone doesn’t hear my accent. Why Wildwood, is it all of that Googie architecture?

Yes, I love Googie architecture! Really, I love everything about Wildwood. They have such a great pride in their history and fully embrace how quirky it is. I could spend every summer of my life there. They’ve doubled down on the classic fifties beach image and they run with it.

Join us at the 2017 Congressional City Conference and meet Angelina and the rest of your City Advocates.

brian-headshotAbout the author: Brian Egan is the Public Affairs Associate for NLC. Follow him on Twitter @BeegleME.

 

What Cities Need to Know About the Booming eSports Industry

The world of professional, competitive video gaming is expanding at a rapid pace – and you might be surprised to learn that cities stand to benefit from its growth.

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Twitch streamers (professional competitive video gamers) gather at the White House for its first-ever competitive gaming event on Monday, December 12, 2016.

This post was co-authored by Angelina Panettieri and Courtney Bernard.

This week, more than 220,000 people tuned in to watch the first-ever White House eSports event on Twitch. For those not familiar with the video game industry, this event may prompt a few questions – namely, what are eSports and Twitch? Why is this a draw for so many people? And what could this mean for my community?

NLC staff were on-site for the event, and we’ve compiled the top things every city leader needs to know about the fast-growing industry set to generate $1 billion within the next few years.

eSports are everywhere – and the industry is expanding rapidly.

eSports – a term that refers to professional, competitive video gaming – are increasingly popular spectator events driving major investment and interest. Enthusiasts around the globe attend events in person or stream content with online platforms like Twitch, which has nearly 10 million daily active users. Spectators watch gamers play everything from multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games to strategy games.

Currently, 14 percent of Americans follow eSports. To put that into perspective, eSports spectators actually outnumber those watching the World Series or NBA Finals. And while there are hundreds of millions of people across the country that already watch eSports, even more are playing video games – 49 percent of American adults, to be exact.

The rising popularity of video games and eSports is driving major consumer brands like Coca-Cola, ESPN and American Express to invest in the industry. As the competitive gaming industry continues to evolve, analysts expect audience and revenue growth to accelerate rapidly.

eSports events could drive tourism for cities.

The widespread appeal of eSports make events and tournaments a potentially major draw for tourism, both here at home and abroad. eSports events are selling out stadiums, convention centers and other large venues around the globe. In 2015, there were 112 major eSports events, and they generated $20.6 million in ticket revenues.

In the United States, these events have become a major draw for tourism in cities like Los Angeles and New York. The projected growth trend for eSports suggests that many other cities can leverage the phenomenon to boost tourism and engage members of the community.

The eSports boom has already drawn the attention of traditional sports team owners and franchises. For example, Golden State Warriors co-owner Peter Guber and Washington Wizards majority owner Ted Leonsis recently joined forces to acquire eSports franchise Team Liquid, and the Philadelphia 76ers purchased two eSports teams as well. Partnerships and acquisitions like these could lead to huge opportunities for local eSports expansion.

eSports enthusiasts in your city need robust broadband infrastructure.

In order to leverage this booming new industry, cities need to ensure their broadband infrastructure is up to snuff. While a number of federal programs have targeted the homework gap and the need for students to have access to broadband both at school and at home, cities should not ignore a similar recreation gap for entertainment streaming services. City residents increasingly expect access to broadband at home, whether they use it for work or play. A 2015 study found that a fiber optic internet connection increases the value of a home by as much as an additional fireplace or half-bath.

Online gaming and streaming activities are driving the need for reliable, low-latency broadband service in the home. While broadband infrastructure continues to expand, the percentage of Americans choosing to purchase broadband remains near 70 percent of households. If leaders in your community – and residents – are struggling to see the value of a robust broadband infrastructure, eSports and online recreation may be the missing link.

About the authors:

Angelina Panettieri is the Principal Associate for Technology and Communication at the National League of Cities. Follower her on twitter @AngelinainDC.

 

Courtney Bernard is the Senior Communications Associate in NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research. Follow her on Twitter @cbernard916.

Closing the Digital Divide in America

This is a guest post by David L. Cohen, Executive Vice President of Comcast Corporation.

Chance the Rapper (left) and Comcast Executive Vice President David L. Cohen present laptops to students from Chicago’s Alcott College Prep at a recent event to announce new Internet Essentials milestones. (Comcast)

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 52 percent of low-income households in the United States subscribe to broadband at home. What’s more, for certain low-income groups, broadband adoption still falls more than 20 percentage points behind the general population, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

Today, access to the Internet at home is essential for all family members to keep up in this digital and highly competitive world— so much so that it’s hard to believe there are still so many families without it. Whether doing homework, applying for college, searching and applying for jobs, paying bills, accessing health care or using social media, think for a second about how you would do all these things if you didn’t have the Internet at home? Would you park your car in your nearest McDonald’s parking lot so you could hand your smartphone to your child to use the free Wi-Fi to write a book report? Would you send your daughter across town on a bus at night to a computer lab so she could do her homework? Would you walk a mile to your local library to sign your son up for a 30 minute session on a computer? I’ve traveled all around the country hearing stories from mothers and fathers who had to do all of these things for their kids because they didn’t have Internet service at home. It doesn’t seem fair does it?

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In August 2011, we set out to try to help solve this problem by introducing Internet Essentials, the nation’s largest and most comprehensive broadband adoption program. It provides low-cost broadband service for $9.95 a month; the option to purchase an Internet-ready computer for less than $150; and multiple options to access free digital literacy training in print, online and in person.

That was three and a half years ago. Recently, we were proud to announce that thanks to the support and hard work of thousands of community partners, elected officials and dedicated employees, we have connected more than 450,000 families, or 1.8 million low-income Americans, to the power of the Internet at home. For a frame of reference, 1.8 million is larger than the populations of 96 of America’s 100 largest cities as well as 12 states. That is real and meaningful progress.

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On a local level, the Chicago metro area leads the way in closing the digital divide for the fourth year in a row. More than 50,000 families, or 200,000 low-income Chicagoans – nearly 25 percent of its eligible population – have signed up for Internet Essentials. Second best is the Miami metro area, with more than 41,500 families, or 166,000 low-income residents – 28 percent of its eligible population. The Atlanta metro area is third best with more than 25,000 families, or more than 100,000 low-income citizens – almost 20 percent of its eligible population.

Crossing the digital divide is not just about getting families online, it’s also about teaching them how to use the Internet’s resources to its fullest potential. The clear-cut assessment across all broadband researchers is that the most widely noted reason for non-adoption is not the price of the broadband connection or any cost related to that connection. Instead, it’s a bucket of digital literacy issues, including a perceived lack of relevance of the Internet and a lack of understanding of its value. For instance, nearly half of non-adopters say they simply don’t need the Internet at home or are not interested, according to research by the NTIA.

To break down that barrier to adoption, we’ve invested more than $225 million in cash and in-kind support to help fund digital literacy and readiness initiatives, reaching more than 3.1 million people through our network of national and local nonprofit community partners. Partners like the National League of Cities have also played a crucial role in making more people aware of these training opportunities.

One of my favorite statistics that truly highlights the progress we are making is from research by Dr. John B. Horrigan, former head of research for the FCC’s National Broadband Plan and a preeminent researcher on broadband adoption and utilization. He found that even though Comcast is only one of multiple providers, and does not have broadband systems in two-thirds of the country, the company’s Internet Essentials program has accounted for one-quarter of all of the national broadband adoption growth for low-income families with children from the program’s inception through June 2014.

We look forward to the continued success of the program. We believe the Internet has the power to transform lives, strengthen communities and inspire a new generation of leaders – but we can’t do this alone. We hope you will join us in this fight to close the digital divide. If you’d like to get more involved and become a partner, please sign up at www.internetessentials.com/partner and help spread the word.

david cohen, comcast_150x187About the Author: David L. Cohen is Executive Vice President of Comcast Corporation. David has a broad portfolio of responsibilities, including corporate communications, government and regulatory affairs, public affairs, legal affairs, corporate administration and community investment, and serves as senior counselor to the CEO. He also serves as Chief Diversity Officer for the company.

Workforce Development, Jobs Report, and Broadband: This Month in Economic Development

Our monthly roundup of the latest news in economic development filtered through a city-focused lens. This month’s roundup features stories from NLC’s Congressional Cities Conference. Reading something interesting? Share it with @robbins617.

"Photo by Jason Dixson Photography. www.jasondixson.com"President Obama announces his new TechHire initiative, which calls for a partnership between cities, higher education and the private sector to expand access to tech jobs in communities across the country, at NLC’s Congressional City Conference in Washington, D.C. last week. (Jason Dixson Photography)

White House announces TechHire initiative to expand skills training for tech jobs. President Obama addressed NLC’s membership at the Congressional Cities Conference and asked for cities to partner with him on TechHire, a new workforce program designed to train low-skilled workers for well-paying information technology jobs like software development, network administration and cybersecurity. The new initiative will include $100 million in competitive grant funding as well as private sector resources and support for 21 communities selected to participate.

Skills gap: myth or reality? Meanwhile, the ongoing debate continues over whether or not a skills gap actually exists in our country’s workforce. Tom Snyder, President of Ivy Tech Community College, wrote a piece for The Huffington Post about leveraging community colleges for skills training on emerging technologies. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently challenged the idea of a skills gap, arguing there’s insufficient evidence to prove a skills gap is holding back employment. However at the local level, where job opportunities are returning but going unfilled, mayors are responding by developing workforce programs to meet the specific hiring needs of area businesses (like in Missoula, Mont., and Heath, Ohio).

The latest employment trends in local government. NLC’s latest Local Jobs Report analysis by Christiana McFarland found slight gains in overall public sector employment, with local government responsible for the majority of those new jobs last month. But this positive news is tempered by the fact that the local government workforce is still smaller today than it was at its peak in 2008. Another local government trend highlighted by the Emerging Local Government Leaders (ELGL) network is the lack of growth in the percentage of chief administrative officers that are women. That number still stands at 13 percent – the same today as it was back in 1984. The thought-provoking ELGL “13 Percent” blog series features personal stories from city employees.

Municipal broadband could be coming to a neighborhood near you. In case you missed it, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to allow the municipal broadband systems in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., to expand outside their existing borders. This is encouraging news for other cities that are considering building their own broadband systems, like Seattle. The decision also affirms NLC’s position that municipal broadband systems can play an important role in supporting local growth and opportunity. More info from the FCC can be found here.

Cities are making the sharing economy work. NLC released a new report, Cities, the Sharing Economy, and What’s Next, at the Congressional Cities Conference. The report provides analysis from interviews with city officials about the impact of the sharing economy (and companies like Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb) on innovation and economic development and how cities are managing safety and implementation considerations. NLC’s Brooks Rainwater explained how this new resource will assist city leaders as they understand, encourage, and regulate the sharing economy in their cities.

For a laugh. Not to start a dog-versus-cat war, but how great would it be if every economic development strategy included plans for a cat café? Meanwhile in Boston, a GoFundMe campaign aiming to raise $300 million to fix the struggling local transit system first started out as a joke but is now receiving national media attention. The campaign is unlikely to reach its goal, but if you donate $50, the fund’s creator will scream your name on the orange line for 45 minutes during rush hour.

Idea of the month: Life experience as college credit. Getting a degree later in life is hard, but Pennsylvania’s community colleges are making it easier by now counting life experience as college credit.

What we’re reading. There were a few solid reports this month on workforce, wages, and jobs. Brookings released a report identifying the advanced industries with the greatest prospects for long-term economic growth (Governing provided a solid overview of the key findings). The Boston Consulting Group found that the top three reasons companies bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. are better access to skilled workers, lower shipping costs, and shorter supply chains. Finally, the Economic Policy Institute testified before Congress about government actions needed to create jobs and grow wages. The testimony said that local governments should implement targeted employment programs and also invest in broadband, education, transportation and other infrastructure projects.

(Last month’s roundup is here.)

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About the author: Emily Robbins is the Senior Associate, Finance and Economic Development at NLC. Follow Emily on Twitter: @robbins617.

Expanding on the President’s TechHire Initiative: How Innovation Districts Catalyze Jobs, Creativity & Growth

"Photo by Jason Dixson Photography. www.jasondixson.com"President Barack Obama, seen here speaking at NLC’s Congressional City Conference on Monday, March 9, revealed his new TechHire initiative to expand access to tech jobs in communities across the country. NLC has just released a new research brief on Innovation Districts that explores the President’s ideas in more depth, specifically reinforcing the important intersection where business, education, technology, and city leadership meet.

With President Obama’s announcement at the NLC Congressional Cities Conference of the new TechHire initiative, the White House will make available $100 million in grants to expand the number of Americans in well-paying tech jobs. The program will include city leaders, universities, community colleges, and the private sector with a special focus on underserved population, working together to expand tech jobs. At the same time as TechHire ramps up in the initial 21 cities, it is increasingly apparent that place in the 21st century economy matters more than ever. City leaders know that the tech sector of today is increasingly gravitating away from suburban office parks towards central cities and innovation districts.

Cities incubate creativity and serve as labs for innovative ideas and policies, and the place where this is happening more and more is in Innovation Districts. These districts are creative, energy-laden ecosystems that focus on building partnerships across sectors. Innovation Districts attract entrepreneurs, established companies, and leaders from all walks of life, providing them with the space and the place they need to create unexpected relationships and find transformative solutions.

From established environments, like the Boston Innovation District to the newly developing innovation district in Chattanooga, one of the founding TechHire cities, there is an increasing focus on catalyzing economic growth through “spatial clustering.” These districts share similarities with traditional economic clusters, but differ in key ways. Placemaking is central to innovation districts, and there is a focus on being sited in high-density areas with a cross-section of employees that want to share ideas instead of being cloistered apart from one another. These urban ecosystems foster collaboration and bump and spark interactions between workers that might just create the next big idea.

NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research (CSAR) has just released a new research brief on Innovation Districts that explores this concept in more depth, specifically reinforcing the important intersection where business, education, technology, and city leadership meet. Further work will be forthcoming in this space, including an in-depth look at the innovation district forming in Chattanooga, as well as work in partnership with other key players. Innovation districts can encourage experimentation and serve as a key strategy for cities as they further urban economic development and pave the way for new job opportunities through initiatives like TechHire.

Brooks Rainwater bio photoAbout the author: Brooks Rainwater is the Director of the Center for City Solutions and Applied Research at the National League of Cities. Follow Brooks on Twitter at @BrooksRainwater.

Recent FCC Proceedings Highlight Importance of Equity, Local Control

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski Speaks On Net NeutralityFormer FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski speaks to the media on the importance of net neutrality on December 1, 2010 at the headquarters of the FCC in Washington, D.C. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Like so many aspects of our national infrastructure, internet service has become such an integral part of our work, our personal lives, and our social interactions that we tend to take it for granted; we don’t often pay much attention to the World Wide Web until we no longer have access to it. That all changed last Thursday, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted on two widely-publicized proceedings: one related to the issue of net neutrality, and another regarding petitions filed by telecommunications utilities in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., to overcome state barriers to the expansion of municipal broadband networks. In two 3-2 votes, the FCC supported the Chattanooga and Wilson petitions to preempt state laws restricting municipal broadband networks, and adopted a new Open Internet Order which reclassifies broadband Internet access as a common carrier telecommunications service under Title II of the Communications Act.

These decisions speak to the basic tenets of democracy and equity. The internet, which is one of our country’s most sound economic engines, has also developed into a carrier of social good. It protects our right to free speech, broadens our access to information, and enables us to communicate across physical boundaries. Policies that view and protect these services as institutionalized goods to which the public should have unrestricted access reflect democratic ideals and a spirit of equality among all citizens.

Despite their relative obscurity in the public lexicon, the recent decisions made by the FCC are the product of debates in which policy wonks and advocates have been engaged for years. The issues around which the decisions are based received more public attention and increased media coverage in recent months as a result of many factors, including President Obama’s official statements addressing these topics and television personality John Oliver’s rousing (and hilarious) explanation of net neutrality on his late-night television show. This extra attention prompted a massive outpouring of comments submitted to the FCC during the proposed rules’ public comment periods. There were over 4 million comments submitted regarding the Open Internet proceedings – more than any other policy issue in the Commission’s history. This sent the clear message that, despite John Oliver’s declaration of this topic as “boring,” the American people recognize the gravity and importance of these decisions.

Municipal Broadband

Perhaps you followed our previous series on the ins and outs of municipal broadband, which provided a basic overview of muni-broadband networks. Municipal (muni) networks, also referred to as community networks, are built and managed by and within city or regional boundaries. In the case of the recent FCC decision, two cities with existing community networks located in states that subsequently passed anti-muni laws petitioned to expand broadband service outside of their current footprints in response to numerous requests from neighboring unserved and underserved communities. The FCC found that provisions of the anti-muni laws in these states are barriers to broadband deployment, investment and competition, and conflict with the FCC’s mandate to promote these goals. The Commission voted to allow Chattanooga and Wilson to expand their existing networks. Chairman Wheeler, Commissioner Clyburn and Commissioner Rosenworcel voted in favor of the petitions, and in their statements underscored the importance of broadband as a necessity for local growth and opportunity and highlighted the value of municipal broadband in meeting these goals, particularly in areas where service was not provided by industry.

This represents a success for cities, underscoring the importance of local control in infrastructure investments that serve cities’ needs. In response to the FCC’s decision, NLC CEO & Executive Director Clarence Anthony stated that “today’s vote underscores the critical role of local governments in providing broadband services that are integral to a strong, 21st century economy that benefits residents and strengthens communities. Chattanooga, Tenn., and Wilson, N.C., are examples of the successful role local governments can play to ensure that high-speed, affordable broadband is available to our cities’ residents. While their petitions to the FCC only apply to their individual municipal broadband initiatives, today’s ruling sets a precedent that acknowledges the need for local flexibility to meet individual community needs. Each community is different, and local governments must have the flexibility and authority to make the best choices for their residents.”

Open Internet/Net Neutrality

The term “net neutrality” is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication. This principle became the ideological basis of the internet as we know it today; the idea of a free and open communications infrastructure did more to catalyze a new age of human connectivity than any other advancement in recent history. It also ushered in a new age of business by modernizing economic transactions and offering the perfect platform for entrepreneurs. Those who wished to start a business but lacked capital could simply build a web presence – thus, the internet became the incubator of the everyman.

The FCC’s recent vote allowed for the regulation of the internet under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, treating it as a public utility and allowing the Commission to regulate it as such. The new rules enable the FCC to prohibit paid prioritization, which would allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to block or restrict certain content, essentially dividing the internet into “fast lanes” for companies and higher-paying customers and “slow lanes” for the general public. More information is available in the FCC’s press release on this topic.

The FCC’s net neutrality ruling will not subject ISPs to rate regulation, tariff unbundling or any other new taxes or fees. However, opponents of net neutrality have already proposed counter-legislation and threatened lawsuits. The FCC has braced itself for a bevy of aggressive litigation.

Better for Cities

The FCC decision on municipal broadband represents a major win for local policy makers in that they restored local control and enabled the cities of Chattanooga and Wilson to provide improved services in their communities. Municipal broadband networks offer high-speed internet access at affordable prices; they encourage economic development in cities and towns; they help local government and municipal services to function more efficiently; and most importantly, they meet the specific needs of a community as defined by its citizens. Municipal networks underscore the notion that internet access is a right, not a privilege, and that local governments can and should intervene to ensure that this right is protected equally for all Americans.

Nicole DuPuis bio photoAbout the Author: Nicole DuPuis is the Senior Associate for Infrastructure in NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research. Follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicolemdupuis.

Mayors: A Responsive City Needs Great Internet Access

This is a guest post by Susan Crawford.

fiber opticsIn theory, fiber-optic cables have the capacity to transmit data at unlimited speeds. As of this writing, data has been successfully transmitted at more than 40 terabits per second – fast enough to allow you to upload a 1TB hard drive in 1/5th of a second. (Getty Images)

A recent Webby Awards/Harris Interactive poll found that consumers – constituents, in other words – have come to expect real-time tracking, same-day delivery, and the opportunity to provide instant feedback regarding every service and business they encounter. 80 percent of respondents said they expect payments to be handled automatically, 85 percent expect to see reviews from other customers, and 60 percent expect services to learn about their preferences. In the next five years, these expectations are only going to be higher; nearly 50 percent of respondents said they expect that there will be a service within the next five years that ships them products they need before they order them.

Meanwhile, the digital divide in U.S. cities remains staggering. 56 percent of Detroit households don’t have what the FCC calls “fixed broadband subscriptions” (meaning anything other than dial-up or mobile devices), and 40 percent have no Internet access at all (meaning they have no wired or mobile access). More than 36 percent of Cleveland residents have no Internet access at all. Miami, New York City, Los Angeles, Boston, Washington, D.C. and Chicago are all on the list as well. (Here’s the full ranking of cities with more than 50,000 residents.)

Mayors know that public trust in the institutions of the federal government is at record low levels these days. But mayors also know that public trust in local government remains strong. Mayors get things done; they don’t have time to play polarized, corrosive politics.

And here’s the kicker: polls show that world-class Internet access is becoming a voting issue in America.

What can a mayor do to ensure (a) the services his or her city is providing meet constituents’ expectations (keeping trust in the effectiveness of local government high), (b) all of his or her constituents have world-class, reasonably priced, high capacity Internet access where they live, work and play (so that every resident is treated with dignity and given the opportunity to thrive), and (c) constituents are convinced that tomorrow will be better than today?

The answer lies in municipal fiber. Its time has come.

Without city-controlled fiber-optic lines connecting municipal buildings and the pulsing infrastructure of the city – transport, energy, water, sewage, public safety etc. – your city won’t be able to gather, aggregate, visualize, collaborate over, ship around among agencies, report on, or even use the data you should know about in order to effectively manage a 21st century municipality. (You’ll find a useful set of case studies reporting on the exciting intersections among cities and data in my recent book, “The Responsive City,” co-authored with Stephen Goldsmith.) Only fiber has the symmetric (both upload and download) capacity you’ll need to handle these floods of data. And once it’s in, it’s good for decades – to upgrade, all you’ll need to do is swap out the electronics at the end points. As far as scientists can tell, fiber has an unlimited capacity to carry information. And in order to provide the digital window on your city that your voters will increasingly demand – the predictions, easy payment mechanisms, real-time services, visual feedback and data-driven policies they will expect from all interactions – you’ll need fiber.

Those fiber-optic lines linking city infrastructure need to be controlled by the city; your constituents need reasonably-priced connectivity. Starting with city buildings is a good way to launch a city network. Just ask my hometown of Santa Monica, California, which saved so much money by dropping leased services and wiring its municipal buildings itself that it now provides service to businesses – and is ready to move to fiber to the home.

And municipal fiber is how you can close the digital divide that is the scourge of so many U.S. cities. Think of that divide, now amplifying and entrenching existing social problems in your city, as similar to a failure to provide a functional street grid. You don’t have to provide retail services yourself, just as you don’t have to provide the cars and businesses that use your streets. Consider the case of Ammon, Idaho, a small conservative town that built a passive fiber (as opposed to fiber-optic) network over which a host of competing service providers can sell directly to residents. Only a city builds streets; similarly, no private company would have an incentive to serve everyone with basic infrastructure, but every private company will rejoice in having reasonably-priced, unlimited communications capacity as a basic input into everything it needs to do. For more evidence, look at Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Finally, the excitement, pride, and relief of people who see that their city is capable of great things will add up to votes for the leaders involved. People are aching for reliable, effective, nonpartisan leadership. They still trust their mayors, many of whom have recently joined Next Century Cities to learn more about municipal fiber.

​Now that about twenty states have put barriers in place making community high speed Internet access initiatives difficult (and we know additional state barriers will be proposed this year), local leaders are also banding together in the Coalition for Local Internet Choice to oppose barriers to local choice.​

Why? Because these state-imposed limits are bad for the communities involved, bad for the private sector, and bad for America’s global competitiveness. 2015 looks like a good year for forward thinking.

Susan Crawford bio photoAbout the author: Susan Crawford is the John A. Reilly Visiting Professor in Intellectual Property at the Harvard Law School (2014) and a co-director of the Berkman Center. She is the author of Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, co-author of The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance, and a contributor to Medium.com’s Backchannel.

The Who, What and Why of Google Fiber

Having your city selected for deployment of Google Fiber has many of the same subsequent effects as the development of a municipally owned network.

Google-Fiber-2Photo credit: UCFFool (Mario at Google Fiber – Kansas City, MO), via Wikimedia Commons

Google has built itself securely into our everyday lives. Between Google mail, Google chat and Google maps, few of us get through the day without relying on one of this gargantuan company’s products or programs. Most people probably default to the company’s website when they are searching for anything on the internet. In fact, the word Google is nearly ubiquitous with the web.

However, tucked into the Google empire’s large portfolio is one of its more discreet and misunderstood programs: Google Fiber. What is it? How does it differ from or compliment a municipal broadband network? Most importantly, why is Google doing this? As part of our Muni Broadband blog series, we will unpack the role of Google Fiber in the broadband game and explore the ways that it supports cities in their efforts to expand internet access.

Google Fiber provides broadband internet service to a small (yet increasing) number of cities throughout the United States. The initial locality for the service was chosen through a competition, in which cities and towns submitted applications and initiated various sorts of campaigns to garner support.

On March 30, 2011, Google announced Kansas City, Kan. as the first recipient of the fiber to the premises service. Subsequently the service was expanded to Kansas, City, Mo., and in 2013 several suburban communities in the Kansas City area were announced, along with Austin, Texas and Provo, Utah.  In February 2014, Google announced 34 additional prospective cities which they invited to be a part of a collaborative process to explore deployment options.

Google offers households and businesses three tiers of service: 1) Free broadband internet service with 5 Mb/s download speed[1] and 1 Mb/s upload speed; 2) 1 Gb/s (upload and download speed) broadband internet service for approximately $70.00 per month; and 3) 1Gb/s broadband internet service with television service for approximately $120.00 per month.

Having your city selected for deployment of Google Fiber has many of the same subsequent effects as the development of a municipally owned network. It ensures that people have access to quality, high speed internet that is affordable, and it spurs economic development. Kansas City saw a surge of start-ups and entrepreneurs following the deployment of the service, including Homes for Hackers, an incubator that hosts and supports entrepreneurs with Fiber connections so that they can develop their new business ideas. That’s why cities are so eager to compete for the chance to get it. Google pays for the infrastructure investment, and the community reaps all of the glorious benefits of municipally owned broadband without the payout and management responsibility.

Google’s choice to host their services in particular cities hinges on several variables. Some cities have existing infrastructure-pipes and fibers already in the ground that make them attractive prospects. Geography always plays into the cost-benefit analysis of prospective infrastructure projects. Another concern is whether right-of-way and other administrative negotiations will go smoothly.

Because the types of agreements and negotiations necessary for Google Fiber projects to run smoothly become increasingly complex in large cities, some have argued that there is less likelihood that we will see Google Fiber deploy in cities like Chicago or New York. Some cities, like Washington, D.C., have non-compete agreements with large telecom companies that keep away Google Fiber as well as the possibility of opening up existing high-speed fiber to residents.

While it’s a shame to think about the fact that some communities might have a better chance at securing these services than others, the ultimate remaining question is not where but why. Why is Google, a multi-billion dollar corporation, investing in pricey broadband infrastructure on which they will see virtually no return? In the organization’s vast portfolio, Google Fiber is one of the smaller projects. However, Google’s announcements of new service locations are impactful, especially with communications service providers (CSPs) who are already selling internet and television service in these areas.

AT&T, for instance, has committed to comparable, high speed service in several of the prospective Fiber locations announced by Google, and some speculate that this might just be the tech giant’s plan. By deploying high speed, low cost broadband service in communities across the nation, Google is both raising the bar for existing service and injecting more competition into the market.

Despite the enthusiasm surrounding these deployments, they tend to move very slowly, mostly because this is new territory for both Google and its host cities. Kansas City saw departures from the originally promised deployment timeline, and Austin promoted the service for over a year before residents were able to begin signing up.

Additionally, new roll outs of service have forced Google to squarely face the reality of the digital divide. In Kansas City, Google found that only the more affluent neighborhoods were signing up for the service, and that there were large swaths of the city without internet access. To address this disparity, Google hired a field team to promote the new service to low subscribing communities and initiated several programs and grant funding opportunities around digital literacy. With new opportunities come new challenges, and Google has worked with cities to overcome some of the initial hurdles.

In a way, Google Fiber has the same impact on the broadband game in communities as the build out of municipal broadband networks. It offers better, more affordable service, deflects the power of telecom monopolies and duopolies, and promotes economic development. It is no wonder that cities across the country are begging for the service. The difference is the seemingly philanthropic position of the service provider, Google. Perhaps Fiber is meant to catalyze improved internet services in the market, or perhaps Google is trying to dominate the connectivity market. Either way, cities win.

[1] Free for up to 10 years per address.

Nicole DuPuis bio photoAbout the Author: Nicole DuPuis is the Senior Associate for Infrastructure in NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research. Follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicolemdupuis.

Local Action, State Support Needed for Muni Broadband Expansion

This is a guest post by Angela Siefer.

Broadband-CafeGetty Images

According to the Institute for Local Self Reliance, over 400 communities in the United States have a publicly owned broadband network. But how did they get there? How did they access the poles? Where did they find existing assets? Are those assets available for anyone to use? How was the network paid for?  In some cases, these projects were made possible with support from state partners. Since our past blog posts in this series provided a basic overview of municipal networks, this post will focus on how local officials can work with state policymakers. As you may have guessed, it can get complicated.

Projects that increase broadband availability, affordability and adoption tend to occur at the local level but they need state level support. That support can come in the form of access to open networks, state rights of way, dig once policies and facilitating coordination. To date, 19 states have legislated barriers that discourage community broadband projects. Since broadband deployment tends to occur at the local level, states that avoid placing restrictions on who can own and operate a broadband network leave more options open for local entities to implement innovative solutions.

If you think of the Internet as a highway system, the middle mile is the highway and the on/exit ramps and the streets are the last mile. Government funded broadband build-out (by the National Telecommunications Information Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture) tends to focus on middle mile construction. Owners of middle mile networks choose whether or not to make their fiber open to use by competitors. State governments that mandate their fiber be open to use by anyone (at reasonable cost based rates) can help decrease the cost of build-out, whether by for-profit companies, non-profits or governmental entities.

Here are several examples of state level policies supporting local work to build out community broadband networks:

State Level Policies That Expand State Rights of Way

Arizona SB 1402, the Digital Arizona Highways Bill was passed and signed in 2012. The bill expanded the Arizona Department of Transportation’s state rights-of-way to include transportation of information, in addition to vehicles. Whenever funding is available, the Arizona Department of Transportation may install broadband conduit and lease the conduit to providers at a cost-based rate. In Gigabit Communities: Technical Strategies for Facilitating Public or Private Broadband Construction in Your Community, CTC Technology and Energy declares, “state officials estimate that the incremental cost of placing the conduit during other construction processes is comparable to the cost of painting stripes on the highway.” It is a low cost investment that benefits everyone.

State Use of Federal Policies

The FTTH (Fiber To the Home Council) encourages states to utilize the federal pole attachments statute (Section 224 of the Communications Act 5), through which “states are able to assert jurisdiction and require all owners of poles, ducts, and conduits to make those facilities available to new entrants on a non-discriminatory basis and at reasonable (cost-based) rates, terms, and conditions.” The FTTH Council position paper “State and Local Government Role in Facilitating Access to Poles, Ducts, and Conduits in Public Rights-of-Way” lists Vermont, Massachusetts and Oregon as examples of states that have mandated access to poles, ducts and/or conduits.

State Coordination Efforts

States can help facilitate coordination of broadband infrastructure projects among interested partners. With coordination from the State of Connecticut Office of Consumer Counsel, an initial five municipalities issued a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) to Develop Gigabit Internet Networks in Connecticut. This RFQ has three goals:

  1. Create a world-leading gigabit-capable network in targeted commercial corridors – as well as in residential areas with demonstrated demand – in order to foster innovation, drive job creation and stimulate economic growth;
  2. Provide free or heavily discounted 10-100 MB (minimum) Internet service over a wired or wireless network to underserved and disadvantaged residential areas across the territories and diverse demographics; and
  3. Deliver gigabit Internet service at prices comparable to other gigabit fiber communities across the nation.

This effort reinforces an extensive state fiber network, streamlined processes governing rights-of-way, and a single administrative point of contact for building broadband infrastructure.

State partners can play a critical role in the build-out of municipal networks. Most importantly, they can support innovation and progress with smart policies and carefully executed support to local projects. The outcome is increased opportunity for local governments to improve broadband availability, affordability and adoption.

Angela-Siefer-HeadshotAbout the Author: Angela Siefer is a digital inclusion consultant and an adjunct fellow at the Pell Center, Salve Regina University. She is currently finishing up the Pell Center State-Level Broadband Policy Primer. You can find more of her work at http://angelasiefer.com.