Emerging tools for cities to address the digital divide

Last week, the New York Times ran an article on how the digital divide particularly affects schoolchildren, creating what they termed a “homework gap.”  The article illustrates vividly what has been clear, at least since the 2010 National Broadband Plan advocated universal adoption—that today, a person’s full participation in the economy and civic life requires connectivity.

That plan made a number of recommendations, including reforming Lifeline, a Reagan-era program designed to assure that low-income Americans could access voice services. The Federal Communications Commission adopted limited reforms in 2012, but neglected the more critical steps of including broadband or reforming the program’s structure to encourage more providers to participate. Fortunately, Commissioner Clyburn kicked off a more robust discussion of the issue, and Chairman Wheeler is committed to having the commission adopt the more important reforms next month.

Changes in government policy are a necessary but not sufficient answer to the problem. Another outcome of the plan’s discussions included various private efforts, such as Cox Cable’s program and Comcast’s Internet Essentials, now the largest program connecting low-income Americans to broadband. AT&T and other telcos offer similar programs.

Google also entered the space, including in its first fiber roll-out an inexpensive option—a one time connection fee of $300, payable over time but no monthly service charge—for a 5Mbps service, priced well below the comparable DSL service. Google also supports programs like Digital Inclusion Fellows, to help aid local training sessions.

Google, however, keeps adjusting its approach. Monday, it announced that instead of building its own fiber network, it would lease a network from a local electric utility, a transaction that I think has significant implications for how Google scales and one that creates new opportunities and leverage for cities. Google followed that with an announcement Wednesday of a similar lease model in San Francisco that will include connecting some public housing projects for free as part of the HUD Connect Home initiative.

What’s great about these private efforts, which will enjoy increased momentum when the FCC reforms Lifeline, is they demonstrate how market forces are taking hold and spurring behavior common to more competitive markets: experimentation and adjustments to find more effective ways to bring customers value. Market forces alone will not solve the adoption issue, but market forces, particularly if supported by smarter government, can accelerate the closing of the digital divide.

This is particularly welcome news for cities, whose mayors are increasingly concerned about the digital divide. Like the Huntsville deal, Google’s San Francisco model opens up new opportunities for cities that want to address those concerns. Many cities have significant fiber assets that they use for their own enterprise purposes. In addition, many private companies have dark fiber assets in urban areas that could be lit up for such efforts. Today’s news, in combination with the FCC’s actions next month, will hopefully spark other creative efforts by cities, non-profits, providers, and others to make sure all are connected to broadband, this era’s commons of collaboration.