Cities and the presidential tech agenda

One curiosity of this presidential campaign is that the candidates—with one exception—have largely ignored issues related to cities and communication technology, even though all claim economic growth as a top priority. This is patently short-sighted. Digital technologies like broadband, smartphones, and sensors could be core enablers of future economic growth if we confront gaps in broadband adoption and outdated infrastructure.                 

Fortunately, there is plenty of time to inject urban affairs and technology policy into the campaigns.

Here is a list of issues presidential aspirants should consider and city leaders should weigh in on. Between the trajectory of the American economy and a common pursuit of the millennial and connected voter, a successful urban technology agenda could both unlock economic potential and pay political dividends. 

  • Municipal choice. Nineteen states have restricted local government efforts to accelerate next generation network deployments. The FCC preempted two state laws and the issue is now before the courts. How candidates approach such municipal efforts will signal their approach to broadband competition and meeting exploding bandwidth demand.
  • Wi-Fi v. LTE-U. A battle is raging between mobile services, who want to use unlicensed spectrum with a protocol called LTE-U, and major Wi-Fi users, who want to protect current Wi-Fi services. Cities are weighing in to protecting public Internet access points like parks and tourist areas where residents and tourists like to congregate. This conflict will come to a head next year but future presidential appointments to the five-member FCC board will no doubt have to resolve numerous conflicts in the increasingly crowded unlicensed space.
  • Lifeline program reform. Broadband adoption problems are particularly acute in cities, but early next year the FCC will vote on how to modernize the Reagan-era phone service program to offer subsidized broadband for low-income households. If approved, cities and metro areas will have a new tool to address their specific adoption challenges. Again, however, the next FCC will determine the long-term shape of the program.
  • Congressional broadband legislation. One of the few areas of bipartisan agreement is that the country needs more available spectrum and lower wireline deployment costs. Both the House and the Senate are working on such legislation. While an overall positive, federal legislation always carries a risk that Congress will solve a problem by offloading the costs to cities—so it’s critical that the candidates and city leaders make their voices heard now.
  • E-rate implementation. Last year, the FCC modernized the E-rate program, which helps connect classrooms and libraries to the Internet, and is now rolling out the changes. But those potential upgrades will only come to areas where local leadership adopts to new ways to implement broadband upgrades. Presidential candidates should craft parallel policies to support broadband deployment to these critical community assets.
  • FirstNet. In 2012 Congress authorized the creation of a nationwide interoperable public safety network. The effort will make a number of critical design and business model decisions over the next several years, decisions that will affect how local governments take advantage of the network.
  • Next generation 911. There is a widespread agreement that the current 911 service needs an upgrade from its rotary phone roots to the capabilities possible in the smartphone era. Various federal government efforts are on the path to do so, with a big potential impact for city-run police and fire departments.

In addition, the next administration will have to address a number of issues critical to cities, such as security and privacy concerns that could stifle the potential $1 trillion civic Internet of things and regulatory battles over the “sharing economy.”

In short, there is a large federal agenda for cities on technology issues. While these issues will evolve over the next year, none will be resolved prior to the next administration. Instead, efforts underway today will inform the next administration’s transition team and initial policy agenda. In that light, cities need to weigh-in on these issues today to make sure their voices are reflected.

In turn, candidates should listen to city needs and craft agendas to support their technology-fueled growth. The future of the American economy depends on it.