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By Denise Linn

This post is part of the Regulatory Reform for the 21st Century City project.

Between the Federal Communications Commission’s recent redefinition of broadband, Obama’s BroadbandUSA announcement, and the FCC’s vote supporting net neutrality, issues of Internet quality and accessibility have been thrust in the spotlight. As these federal policies are debated in the Beltway, a new public interest coalition is betting that effective, innovative local leadership can also move the needle in this policy area.

That coalition is called Next Century Cities, and it’s already attracted more than 60 city members. The goal of the advocacy group is to assist cities in gaining improved, competitive Internet options – something their members see as essential for economic development, civic progress, and prosperity. Next Century Cities brings leaders together to demonstrate the value of Internet infrastructure investments, celebrate member cities’ successful projects, and help other cities do the same.

The group launched in October with 30 cities as founding members. Member cities are big and small, conservative and progressive, and are in states from Alabama to Washington. What do those diverse cities have in common? They understand that high-speed Internet is vital to supporting jobs, building businesses, improving health and learning, and increasing public safety.

Deb Socia, executive director of Next Century Cities (Photo/Deb Socia)

To learn more about the group, its approach, and its future plans, Data-Smart City Solutions conducted a Q&A with the executive director of Next Century Cities, Deb Socia.

Data-Smart City Solutions: Tell us about yourself and what drew you to this project.

Deb Socia: I spent many years as a math and science teacher, then as an administrator — most recently as the principal at a large public middle school in Boston. While there, we began a 1:1 laptop program. I saw that the technology not only improved academic opportunities, but had great potential to improve quality of life. To ensure our families were digital adopters, we adapted the existing Tech Goes Home program to provide families with all three essential ingredients for successful adoption — access, training, and hardware. The training helped families to "live, learn, earn, work, and play" successfully through the use of online tools.

From there, I took on the city-wide digital inclusion effort in Boston, which was initially supported by a Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP) grant. Our version of Tech Goes Home was spread across the city and supported nearly 14,000 people in 4 years. While working on this project, I realized that nationwide access to the Internet was limited, not just by an understanding of relevance and cost, but by the very existence of the infrastructure needed to provide high-speed broadband. It is concerning that some Americans can only access dial up or satellite service, limiting their ability to benefit from the great resources available.

What I realized was that innovative local leadership was the game changer for many communities. Committed, caring, thoughtful, and hard-working elected officials across the country have been finding creative solutions. Next Century Cities works with the leaders to find solutions, to celebrate their successes, and to share their stories. It is amazing work!

What is Next Century City’s approach to change?

Our approach is simple because we know there is no single pathway to a smart, effective approach to next-generation broadband. What’s right for Los Angeles isn’t going to be right for Boston, or for Ammon, ID. All of these cities are our members, by the way.

What really matters for communities is meaningful local choice, dedicated leadership, and smart collaboration. Our participating leaders and communities are committed to six commonsense principles:

  • High-Speed Internet Is Necessary Infrastructure
  • The Internet Is Nonpartisan
  • Communities Must Enjoy Self-Determination
  • High-Speed Internet Is a Community-Wide Endeavor
  • Meaningful Competition Drives Progress
  • Collaboration Benefits All

We provide our cities with opportunities to collaborate, learn from experts, and share their successes.

In your opinion, what does a “next century city” look like?

It is a city that has or aspires to have fast, affordable, and reliable broadband. The elected officials in such a city are innovative, collaborative leaders who understand the value of high-speed broadband and therefore consider it to be essential infrastructure. 

Mayor-led advocacy groups like Mayors Against Illegal Guns have arisen over the past decade or so – allowing city leaders to pool together to influence regional and national change. Why do you think mayors are the right champions for improved Internet connectivity?

Mayors are powerful champions because they’re both deeply rooted in their communities and have a holistic view of their city’s needs. They can really appreciate the cross-cutting benefits this infrastructure has for their hospitals, schools, businesses, policing, and local quality of life.

Every level of government seems to be involved in this issue. In January, President Obama talked about broadband speeds in Cedar Falls, IA. How can these levels of government work together most harmoniously to improve broadband in the U.S.? What is each level’s role?

The Internet is a platform for all we do: Education, health care, banking, communicating — it’s all happening online. That means there is a role for everyone to play, not just government, to ensure the Internet is fast, affordable, and accessible.

The President’s speech in Cedar Falls, IA, just the other week – which highlighted Next Century Cities – outlined some powerful steps the federal government will take to support next-generation broadband across the country.

This is a great start for cities across the country. And we welcome support from all those – in the private sector, government, and anywhere in between – who share our commitment to affordable and accessible next-generation Internet.

About the Author

Denise Linn

Denise Linn is a MPP candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Her professional experience thus far has revolved around closing the digital divide and implementing local Internet access projects. As a 2014 Summer Ash Fellow with the Gig.U project, she assisted city leaders seeking to build or extend high-speed fiber networks to spur economic development and civic innovation.

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