The pandemic has highlighted the importance of digital connectivity. Yet, the digital divide persists in access to the internet with many rural and low-income communities lacking reliable, affordable internet. While focusing on reaching 100 percent broadband connectivity, the proposed American Jobs Plan prioritizes “support for broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, and co-operatives” and aims at lifting barriers to municipally-owned networks and rural cooperatives. City officials can learn from a growing number of municipalities, in the US and worldwide, that invest in their own internet networks.
The Challenge of Connectivity
Internet penetration is close to 90 percent in developed economies but as low as 19 percent in the least developed countries. Globally, 72 percent of households have access to internet at home in urban areas, while only 37 percent do in rural areas. In the US alone, 97 percent of the urban population but only 65 percent of the rural population has access to reliable, high-speed internet service. And low-income communities in urban areas face as significant of a connectivity challenge as those in rural areas. Many municipalities and communities have begun to take things into their own hands by investing in broadband networks.
The Community Network Map tracks the ways in which US local governments and communities have invested in wired telecommunications networks, ranging from high-speed city networks connecting thousands to local small-town cooperatives. The map includes over 900 communities with 63 municipal networks serving 125 communities, 63 communities with a publicly owned cable network reaching most or all of the community, and more than 330 communities served by rural electric cooperatives. Yet, 18 states in the US still have legislation that restricts municipal broadband.
How Cities Can Increase Access to Affordable High-Speed Internet
The city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, was ranked the best work-from-home city in 2021 by PC Mag due to its municipally-owned, citywide fiber network delivering gigabit speeds to the entire community. The network was built in 2010 by Electric Power Board (EPB), Chattanooga’s electric utility, making Chattanooga the first US city to roll out a citywide gigabit network. The investment was supported by a $169 billion loan from the city and a $111 billion stimulus grant from the federal government.
Fast broadband helped the city not only bridge the digital divide but also gave it an economic boost. Fast and affordable internet connection, combined with the city’s focus on the smart power grid and business-friendly administration, attracted many tech companies to the city. According to a recent study, the fiber network brought Chattanooga almost $2.7 billion in economic benefits, exceeding the costs of the investment by a factor of 4.42. And 9,500 new jobs were created: the EBP itself has become the largest taxpayer in Chattanooga.
The city of Toronto, Canada, is now following in Chattanooga’s footsteps. In February 2021, the city council approved the ConnectTO program to increase digital equity by expanding access to affordable, high-speed internet for the underserved populations in the city. Toronto intends to create a municipal broadband network, expand access to free public wi-fi, and develop a Digital Equity Policy to bridge the growing digital divide and support the most vulnerable and marginalized residents in accessing vital services and resources. The municipal broadband network will be created using existing city assets (including fiber, buildings, lights, and sidewalks) and will be delivered in collaboration with a private sector partner.
Many small towns and rural areas around the US face an issue of low-bandwidth or no internet service at all as commercial internet service providers do not want to invest in upgrading their internet speed or expanding into last-mile connectivity. The city of Mont Belvieu in Texas was one of them until 2018 when it built and started to operate its own high-speed broadband service. The city did not have its own electric utility, so it decided to create a high-speed network, financed by issuing municipal bonds. To be able to do so, Mont Belvieu got approval from the court that a fiber-optic network could be considered as a utility system or public works project under Texas law.
Rather than laying down their own fiber cables, some cities and communities turn to establish wireless networks in the absence of existing infrastructure. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the nonprofit Meta Mesh Wireless Communities (MMWC) is working on increasing equitable access to the internet to those without connectivity by providing last-mile solutions tailored to the needs of specific communities via a mesh system. In 2020, MMWC launched Every1online, a year-long pilot project to provide internet to the residents of the city’s poorer neighborhoods using high-powered, long-distance Wi-Fi radios installed on tall structures to transmit internet to target neighborhoods and homes. MMWC operates as a nonprofit wireless internet service provider and collaborates with local institutions already working with underserved communities to cover the cost of its services, so they pose little or no cost to the end user.
Where connectivity is slow, expensive or non-existent, local authorities can address digital equity and increase access to affordable and reliable internet by creating publicly or privately run municipal networks, giving subsidies to operators, or supporting community networks. But while doing so, the needs of the communities themselves and their engagement should be carefully considered. The pandemic has not only increased the need for better and more affordable broadband but also demonstrated the power of the communities that can themselves initiate and significantly accelerate necessary connectivity initiatives.