Solving the Urban Digital Divide

old computerI can remember talking about the digital divide twenty years ago. At that time the main issue was to get computers to low income households so that they could buy DSL. There were some fairly successful programs around, mostly run by volunteers or with grant funding to try to make this work.

But now twenty years later most cities I visit are still trying to solve the digital divide. But today it’s a different divide and the urban divide is now mostly one of affordability. There are isolated pockets in many cities that don’t have broadband, but the vast majority of people in urban areas have physical access to broadband. But there are numerous surveys that show that somewhere between 10% and 20% of households in most cities say that they can’t afford broadband.

In the last twenty years broadband has gotten a lot more expensive. And I think we are headed for a time when it’s going to become even more expensive. The big telcos and cable companies are now looking for broadband to be their major source of revenue growth. The cable companies added over 3 million new broadband customers last year and are expected to do so again this year. But you don’t have to look very far into the future to foresee the time when growth will be slow for every ISP. They will be forced to raise broadband rates to meet Wall Street earnings expectations.

There are some cities that have built their own networks – cable HFC networks or fiber networks – but even these cities have not done a very good job of providing broadband to all of their low-income households. It’s expensive to build the last mile and particularly expensive to connect homes to a fiber system.

There are some solutions that can solve part of the problem:

  • There are a number of cities that have built to or purchase broadband for public housing projects. But generally this only covers a small percentage of the households that need broadband.
  • There are some large ISPs that bring broadband to public housing. I recall seeing announcements recently where both Google and AT&T have brought broadband to public housing in one or two cities, and of course they crowed loudly about it. And while these gestures are nice, they solve a tiny slice of the problem.
  • There are cities that have tried to build ubiquitous outdoor WiFi. But these networks are expensive to build and the technology doesn’t seem to last for many years. I know of a number of these networks that have been discontinued in the past.
  • There are also cities experimenting with trying to beam WiFi into low income homes, but this is even more expensive than building outdoor WiFi.
  • Communities everywhere have put broadband into libraries, figuring that having a place for people to get access to broadband is better than nothing at all.

But I see that the digital divide topic is back in vogue and a lot of cities are having the discussion again of how to bring broadband to where people need it. There was a time in the past where broadband was something that was nice to have, but today it is becoming a necessity for most people. And not having affordable broadband puts people at a major disadvantage. There are a lot of people today that use their smartphone for Internet access. This works for a lot of purposes, but it can quickly get dreadfully expensive if you actually use the broadband much.

I don’t have a solution. I was just in a city last week that owns their own cable network and I reminded them that using that network to solve the digital divide is by far the most cost effective way to do this. This city was extremely interested in the new federal lifeline program for data and that might be enough of an incentive for them to develop a lifeline product that can be afforded by a lot of the households in their city.

When I look around at the number of households that want broadband and the numbers that will be eligible for the federal program I wonder if the USF Lifeline Fund is large enough to help everybody who needs it. I saw that Congress is already trying to cap this fund, but if we want to get broadband everywhere then the USF fund might be a powerful tool for getting broadband into a lot more homes.

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