Cities, technology, the next generation of urban development, and the next administration, part 3

This is the third in a series of three blogs on cities, technology, the next generation of urban development, and the next administration. In the first, l discussed Hillary Clinton’s recent technology plan and in particular, the significance of her endorsement of, and a willingness to invest in, a “civic Internet of Things.” In the second, I laid out why the federal government should focus on how cities are likely to be the primary government jurisdictions on the leading edge of using new technology to transform the public sphere. In this final installment, I propose five specific policies for how either a Clinton or Trump administration could accelerate economic growth and social progress by helping cities use emerging technologies. (As a member of the Clinton Technology Advisory Group, I had an opportunity to propose and review some of her proposals. The ideas I present here are mine and do not reflect the views of the committee or of the Brookings Institution.)

As the candidates lay out their plans for the country, cities and technology should be at the heart of the conversation about economic growth and social progress. They should articulate both a strategy and specific ideas about how to accelerate the ability of cities to use new technology to achieve those goals. Here are five such ideas.

A PCAST for cities

The federal government has the scale to attract support from the brightest minds in a number of fields, particularly technology. This process is done in multiple ways, but most notably through the Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), which identifies trends, risks, and opportunities emanating from science and technology that should inform federal government actions.

Cities generally lack the scale for such independent advice but are in no less need of it, as evidenced by a recent PCAST report on cities and technology. A single report, however, is not the same as a sustained effort. We need a long-term institution dedicated to helping cities understand the impact of directions in science and technology.

To bring a constant focus to the opportunity, the new administration should convene a Mayors’ Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (MCAST) that similarly serves to identify trends, risks, and opportunities for cities to deliver its services faster, better and cheaper. While there are many related efforts to attempt to evangelize a best-practices approach, an MCAST would have the ability to both analyze the opportunities and disseminate information in a way that current, fragmented efforts cannot.

An access initiative

As we look back at the history of communications networks, the deployment of networks capable of offering faster, better, and cheaper services always requires a new capital-allocation decision. This is generally done by a private-sector party but often follows government decisions that lower the cost of deployment or operations and/or increase potential revenue and competition. The 1978 Pole Attachment Act, for example, sparked an investment wave into cable systems by allowing cable to attach to utility poles. More recently, the fiber network deployments and upgrades by Google, AT&T and CenturyLink were stimulated by a variety of agreements between cities and the providers that improve the economics of the investments.

A continuing challenge, however, lies in assuring access to essential facilities. There are three basic categories: government-controlled inputs, such as spectrum at the federal level and rights of way at the local level; quasi-public essential facilities such as utility poles and certain kinds of intellectual property developed through standards-setting bodies; and private assets that have become essential. Examples of these include the cable programming regulated under the 1992 Cable Act, the unbundled network elements at the heart of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the business data services facilities currently being debated by the Federal Communications Commission.

This is not a simple task. Nonetheless, Congress specifically told the FCC that it was responsible for the deployment of advanced communications networks and that it should “take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment.” In other words, if the FCC thinks such deployment is too slow—and the current commission clearly believes it is—it ought to inquire whether there are barriers that ought to be removed.

I’m not certain of the answer but, having worked with various efforts to provide facilities-based competition, I suspect such an inquiry should, at a minimum, look at poles, entry to multiple-dwelling units, or MDUs, and a new set of spectrum and data issues.

As to poles, there is some existing regulation. Nonetheless, the cost and time required to attach to poles create obstacles to new deployments. The current rules often require multiple construction crews to do what one crew could do. Just as both national and local governments are wisely adopting “dig once” policies for deploying below streets, we ought to explore a similar vision of “climb once” or “one touch” policies.

With MDUs, we have banned exclusive access agreements but we still have many MDUs where as a practical matter the residents cannot exercise free choice. The FCC should consider whether the failure to provide residents such a right creates a barrier to broadband deployment, in violation of Congress’ mandate.

A third inquiry involves unlicensed spectrum and the civic Internet of Things. Multiple parties, including cities, use unlicensed spectrum for a myriad of purposes. In the near future, we will have to assure that the access to the spectrum, as well as locations for antennas and perhaps even certain kind of data, is fair and serves the public interest.

A tax/next-generation network investment deal

There is a bipartisan consensus that our tax code needs updating to reflect changes in the economy since the last comprehensive reform thirty years ago. The chances for such a bill are not high; neither are they non-material. In that light, cities should advocate that any such effort ought to be used to accelerate investment in next generation, long-term infrastructure.

A traditional way is accelerated depreciation of specified investment, such as in capital facilities that achieve defined next-generation capabilities like fiber next-generation sensors. Another way, unique at this moment, is to cut a deal in which the law allows some of the $2 trillion currently offshore to be repatriated on the condition that a portion of it is invested in next-generation infrastructure. As those funds largely belong to tech companies who benefit from next-generation network investments, there is an alignment of interests that might make that which today seem impossible, inevitable.

As with any tax debate, we’ll need to address issues of fairness and efficiency. Further, there are a number of other issues that are likely to be discussed that will affect technology and cities such as sales taxes on e-commerce. But if cities don’t have ideas about how such legislation will help them obtain next generation facilities, the legislation is more likely to be unfair and inefficient. As noted in the hit musical “Hamilton,” cities have to be “in the room where it happens” with ideas for how to drive capital into building the infrastructure they need.

A government IP transition with an adoption surge

The FCC recently reformed the Lifeline program, which provides support for low-income individuals to stay on critical information networks.

But this is not just about helping low-income people. It helps everyone. As a group of 44 mayors and city officials wrote in support of the reforms: “Getting more low-income households online will help modernize delivery of public services—facilitating more responsive and effective governance while lowering overheads for local government.”

The same would be true for federal government. A high-tech CEO group estimated the savings of transitioning the federal government to a more efficient digital platform to be $1 trillion 10 years.

We should pursue that transition through a commission with the same structure as a base-closing commission. It should be given a mandate to make a series of recommendations that Congress would review on an up-or-down basis. The federal government taking the leadership role in making such changes will accelerate market forces that will make it easier and cheaper for cities to do the same.

But as we make this transition, it is critical that we assist everyone who wants to be on the network. Thus, the recommendations should include that the government dedicates, in advance of the actual savings, a portion of those savings to accelerate adoption, such as through funding a higher Lifeline subsidy, as well as a temporary digital-literacy service corps that would help those lacking the skills to benefit from online services.

The next administration should move the United States to the top tier in e-government delivery and broadband adoption. In doing so, it would lay the groundwork for improving the performance of every municipal government.


When the mass market internet emerged 20 years ago, many hoped it would lead to increased social equity. It was not irrational for us to believe that a medium in which the cost of distribution is zero could lead to a world in which the best products become available to all. After all, the Silicon Valley billionaire and any impoverished child with internet access probably use the same search engine and same apps. As Wired magazine noted, refugees fleeing Syria often have the same smartphone as those in the 1 percent.

But we would have to be blind to believe social equity has improved in the last 20 years. As others have noted, venture capital has largely focused on addressing the pain points of the most well-off, not the least well-off.

After 20 years of hoping market forces would produce such apps, it is time to be more intentional. When the CIA came to believe it needed to be more intentional about the direction of technology, they created a VC fund called In-Q-Tel, opened an office in Silicon Valley, and provided venture capital to tap commercial technology. The Pentagon recently followed with its own Silicon Valley office and fund. They are investing in technology they are interested in buying, and thus they both make money on the investment side and accelerate the deployment of technology they want.

The federal government should do the same to tap developing technology to address the needs of low-income communities in health, education, job training, and other areas. While there are good, voluntary existing efforts, nothing concentrates the entrepreneurs’ mind like some old-fashioned venture capital.

I cannot predict which of these five ideas—or which better ideas—will gain currency. I can predict that ideas that are not in the debate soon are unlikely to be adopted in the next administration’s first term. I can also predict that if the next administration does not help cities find ways to use technology to generate economic growth and social progress, it will not achieve those same goals for the country.

The time to start generating ideas—and support for them—is now.