Don’t Ignore Urban Communities in the Broadband Infrastructure Mix

Conventional wisdom that appears to be driving broadband policymakers, media coverage and funding is that rural areas need infrastructure and urban areas just need to figure out how to get more people using (buying) the infrastructure that exists. Hmm, maybe not.

Plenty of urban areas, similar to their rural kith and kin, need new, better infrastructure. Incumbents like to tell us that low-income communities are well covered by broadband because there are retail stores all over town where people can buy a cell phone and service. Cable service is “available” everywhere because TV ads blanket metro areas. This argument only holds water if you don’t look close enough to realize that bucket’s full of holes.

It’s kind of ironic, actually, that infrastructure in urban areas is not front and center in the public discourse on broadband. In 2004, Philadelphia announced their plan to build a citywide wireless network to combat poverty and abysmal education failures, setting off a tidal wave of dozens of urban cities joining the movement. Urban broadband infrastructure was the media darling of the day.

Not much has changed since with urban broadband infrastructure since the early days of muni WiFi. Except now we hardly read about it. Why? Follow the money. Where has billions in stimulus money for infrastructure buildouts gone? To rural areas. Where’s the bulk of the multi-billion dollar USF going to benefit headed once it’s “reformed?” Rural areas. Incumbents have spent a fortune telling official DC that all is well with wired infrastructure in urban America, just market the hell out of wireless services to urban dwellers.

Let’s look at why this is neither fair nor advisable.

Bandwidth.com released a report and a map that showed the top 10 and the bottom 10 U.S. cities in terms of broadband speeds received relative to average monthly subscription fees. The bottom 10 is a real eye-opener. There are some major urban centers on this list, not a bunch of rural towns.

Durham, Winston-Salem and Greensboro populations average out to about 250,000 people. Raleigh has over 403,000. Charlotte has more 1.7 million people. These are sizeable cities. Charlotte’s just huge. Yet they all have such terrible rankings. Pulling some other data together fleshes out the picture a little more.

In my book, Fighting the Good Fight for Municipal Wireless, I interviewed Patricia Renzulli, CIO for the School District of Philadelphia. She cited surveys they conducted that revealed the range of computer access in homes in the city ranged from 35% to 95% and this access was directly proportional to the income status of the homes. Earlier this year, a study from American University in D.C. reported that 25 richest Zip codes in the Washington, DC region spend about one-third less on average than those in the 25 poorest Zip codes for similar Internet access speeds. At the extremes, the poorest couple of neighborhoods pay three times more per megabit than the richest couple of suburbs.

Whether it’s our nation’s capitol, south of the Mason-Dixon or the Pacific coas, urban low-income communities suffer slow speeds for higher prices. Likely to the degree that these communities significantly inhibit cities’ overall broadband standings. Don’t believe for a minute people aren’t buying simply because they don’t understand the value of broadband. Ychai Benkler, one of the speakers at the National Conference on Media Reform over the weekend, summed the situation up nicely. “Why don’t people want broadband? Old fashioned economics. You sell people crappy service for a lot of money, they won’t want it.”

Washington, D.C. was the one urban city in the U.S. to get an honest to goodness middle mile infrastructure broadband stimulus grant. I spoke with a couple of the City’s technology folks a year ago and sat on a panel about broadband with the City’s former CIO. They pointed to one clear fact: the broadband infrastructure in poor communities is old, outdated or non-existent, take your pick.

If a business in the poorest parts of town want highspeed service, it’s going to cost more because the nearest available wireline is so far away. As cabling deteriorates or becomes obsolete, incumbents aren’t making the ‘hood a priority for upgrades because they regard it as a poor investment opportunity. And they aren’t giving residents price breaks either. As one person said, “you can put free computers in houses, but if Internet access is $90/month and I clear $20K/year, adoption won’t happen.”

I participated in the Center for Social Inclusion’s (CSI) National Symposium on Community-Scale Broadband on Capitol Hill in December of last year. It wasn’t about urban areas exclusively, but it did seek to address the imbalance between how much urban broadband is addressed relative to challenges in rural areas. In CSI’s recent report on the symposium, they addressed several key areas that need to be part of a renewed focus on urban broadband.

Symposium highlights

American communities are regarded only as consumers of services that telecommunications companies provide, not as citizens with a stake in maintaining the net as an open platform for ideas, engagement and opportunities.

We have a problem in how policy decision makers view the relationship between communities and the Internet. This was quite clear than watching lawmakers craft a funding program in which less than 10% went to urban areas, and most of that 10% funded programs that encourage the consuming of technology rather than using broadband to transform lives and communities.

Infrastructure development strategies that seek to achieve ubiquitous universal service must recognize each community’s diverse needs and potential applications, and implement investment and adoption strategies designed to meet those unique challenges.

While the concept was encouraged, feedback from communities indicates a sizeable number of programs may have been funded without enough thorough needs assessment.

The monopolization of broadband wire infrastructure by a few large incumbents creates a powerful force aimed at protecting the current business model—one that leads to digital redlining, exclusion of communities of color, and higher costs and lower speeds for all subscribers. Incumbents consistently lobby against municipal or community ownership of broadband infrastructure and undermine both the possibility and efficacy of such ownership.

Just look at North Carolina.

However, direct financial subsidies to encourage [investments by] private incumbent providers have failed to become self-sustaining and [failed] in addressing the scale of the problem of inequalities in deployment or adoption. Ultimately, if private sector priorities and public imperatives are at odds, privatized models of creating broadband infrastructure are not likely to work in the communities that need the infrastructure the most.

You can download the report to get all of the details from CIS’ blue ribbon panel of thought leaders. The videos from the symposium are available here.

2 Responses

  1. Craig – One additional point is that under telecom deregulation, build-out requirements are dropped and red-lining becomes permissible. So this schizophrenic policy of saying we’ll depend on the commercial providers to deliver, but then turnaround and tell them they don’t have to deliver, is problematic. At the very least, there should be an open and transparent broadband map so we can monitor the progress of broadband deployment, to determine whether neighborhoods are being bypassed. I also think USF should be tied to buildout.

  2. I agree with you on all counts, Chip. And don’t get me started on the issue of needing maps that matter worth a damn. I’m very much in favor of getting greater levels of accountability from the USF program. At the moment it seems like one big giveaway is going on for too many large companies.

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