How Mayors Can Address Digital Disparities


Local government officials – and residents – have long seen how the digital divide worsens racial and economic divides in their communities; the COVID pandemic has only brought greater attention to this issue. K-12 students were suddenly confined to their homes for long periods of time without access to school buildings and needed services. Even prior to the pandemic students without broadband at home would huddle up outside buildings with free wireless to do their homework, something which took on a whole new meaning during COVID. A national initiative to connect schools to high-speed broadband had largely succeeded but when schools closed even that oasis of opportunity for students disappeared.

Layered on top of these educational divides, especially in rural areas, this lack of broadband access produced further gaps in access to health care as well, as telemedicine use increased. A 2020 paper in the Journal of Appalachian Health underscored that having “broadband and telecommunications technologies to evaluate, diagnose, and monitor patients beyond the clinic—are becoming an indispensable tool in medicine to overcome the obstacle of distance.” These communities are “double-burdened counties have both poor health outcomes and low broadband penetration.” Community engagement, healthcare, education, and access to public services suddenly depended even more on internet access. 

This increased dependency raises important issues for elected local leaders who have no real authority over broadband and rarely any budget to resolve these issues. Decades ago, in the era of wired phone service, a monopoly provider could not come into a city unless it guaranteed universal service.  Now, providers are allowed to cherry pick areas of opportunity.  Mayors with little infrastructure money rarely could address the gaps. Chattanooga, Tennessee was a notable exception; through a creative use of city controlled local utility, the city was able to provide broadband as one of its services and spread the cost among rate players.

Yet the current range of federal programs supporting broadband coupled with more reliable mapping tools, mayors and county officials can more effectively advocates for equitable service and funding.  How then should mayors use their voices in this evolving time? 

The first step is understanding more clearly where service gaps exist. Gaining accurate information as part of investment decisions is obviously critical. Local officials often complain about inaccurate FCC coverage maps. A paper by Next Century Cities noted that  "For decades, broadband expansion has been limited by inaccurate FCC coverage maps that show service where in fact there is none. Those FCC maps were based solely on unverified statements from internet providers that exaggerated availability significantly. Connecting Appalachia’s broadband map is based on millions of real-world, consumer-initiated speed test results from half-a-million unique locations in the state of Ohio.”

This broadband mapping needs to additionally include accessibility in terms of speed and cost. This advocacy requires granularity, especially in rural areas where the FCC reported access maps may miss questions of price and service areas.  The National League of Cities worked with several cities including Butte-Silver Bow, MT; Cedar Rapids, IA; and Purcellville, VA, to help them develop a broadband speed test app to gather more reliable data. Kathryn Kennison, Manager of Information Technology, for the City and County of Butte-Silver Bow, Montana points out that merely accepting maps from federal agencies, such as FDA and Census is insufficient. "What we found is none of the mapping is quite right. Especially the census data, because they put it in blocks that are large enough that if one person is served, they consider the whole block served, and that just isn’t accurate."

Kennison reported that with support from the NLC Capstone Challenge they will be able to collect and map the data necessary to get funding to enhance broadband coverage. In addition, because Butte Silver Bow is an EPA superfund site due to mining cleanup tasks, they have experience with spatial analytics.  Atlantic Richfield Company’s settlement with the EPA concerning a local superfund site helped fund geographic information system expertise in various city departments that proved useful in addressing the broadband access. 

Mayors and governors can encourage more accurate maps by asking residents to upload reports to a mapping platform and then combining that with NTIA’s National Broadband Availability Map. Alaska demonstrates such an approach with its interactive map Connect Alaska.

Next, mayors will become more critical levers in putting together the necessary information and funding while making sure that equitable deployment does in fact occur. For example, cities are concurrently working with 5G providers, and although mayors have little leverage due to FCC rules, they do have some as part of permitting. With some creativity, telecom providers can be encouraged to address inequities;  in San Jose the Digital Inclusion Fund is working to expand connectivity through partnerships with telecom partners. Mayor Kwasi Fraiser of Purcellville, VA, describes his job as “pinpointing where those pain points are and then working in collaboration with a Verizon or AT& T to say, these are locations and these are gaps, 10 miles from the town of Purcellville or 10 miles from our town hall that needs Wi-Fi.”

Finally, city leaders can help with digital services in other ways as well. They can encourage eligible households to apply for the federal  Affordable Connectivity Program. And, since access alone is not be end goal, they can help arrange digital skills training and provision of internet-enabled devices as was done by officials in Yonkers N.Y.; Oakland, CA; and Albuquerque, N.M.

Fixing the digital disparities in rural and urban communities requires well visualized mapped information on need coupled with a voice of advocacy, support for public private partnerships that center equity, and provision of technical training coupled with free access to digital notebooks.  Wider-spread recognition of the deep effects of the digital gap, coupled with new federal funding, now provides the opportunity to close this disparity.

About the Author

Stephen Goldsmith 

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. His latest book is Growing Fairly: How to Build Opportunity and Equity in Workforce Development.

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