Attacking the Connectivity Gap

A new initiative in the nation’s capital is looking to close a stark digital divide.
by | October 2011

Washington, D.C., is one of the nation’s best-connected cities, with nearly 70 percent of residents enjoying high-speed Internet access. But if you look more closely, broadband adoption rates vary widely. In affluent neighborhoods, those rates hover near 100 percent; in poorer neighborhoods, they dip below 40 percent.

The job of closing that gap falls to Rob Mancini, chief technology officer for the district. Over the next several years, Mancini’s office will sink around $30 million into a coordinated digital divide project under Mayor Vincent Gray’s One City initiative. D.C. government is using federal stimulus grants to map broadband Internet adoption throughout the city, lay new fiber-optic cable in neighborhoods with poor adoption rates, launch education initiatives designed to boost awareness and, finally, to monitor the results.

Mancini, who became CTO in January after spending eight years in the district’s technology department, says the initiative won’t help just his city. Lessons learned in the nation’s capital also could help other municipalities stay competitive in a global economy. “We are a great experiment,” Mancini says. “If we can roll out a community access network and track the adoption and provide some education, maybe we can make a difference in this country.”

The plan’s centerpiece is a $25 million extension to the district’s existing DC-Net high-speed information network, which already covers much of the city with 350 miles of fiber-optic cable that snakes through conduit and plumbing beneath the streets. The additional investment -- funded primarily through a $17.5 million grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration -- will add 150 miles of cable, extending those high-speed lines into neighborhoods struggling with broadband adoption.

The new fiber lines -- known as “middle-mile infrastructure” in technology-speak -- won’t link directly to homes and businesses. Instead, they’ll be offered at low cost to telecom companies that sell Internet service to end-users. “If we are building a middle-mile infrastructure and providers are plugged into it, we’re saving those companies a ton of money,” Mancini says, adding that those savings will be passed along to consumers in the form of cheaper broadband Internet service in the neighborhoods that need it most.

Coupled with the network expansion is a mapping effort -- funded by $4 million in federal stimulus grants -- to identify pockets of low broadband Internet use and determine what economic or educational factors may be slowing adoption. In addition, the district has another $4 million set aside for promoting the value of high-speed Internet service through activities like job training and computer classes.

A broadband adoption map released by the city in March clearly shows the problem. In well-to-do neighborhoods in northwest D.C., more than 90 percent of residents have high-speed Internet connections. But in poorer communities in the southeast, only 36 to 40 percent of people can access broadband. The city will track the effort’s progress for five years and identify which activities have the biggest impact.

All of the grants existed before Mancini became the district’s CTO, but the projects weren’t coordinated, Mancini says. Instead, they were being handled by multiple groups within city government. “They weren’t working together; we had no unified, cohesive strategy that made any sense,” he says. One of the CTO’s first moves was to bundle all of those activities together into what is now known as the city’s Digital Inclusion Initiative.

While the district has two years to complete the network expansion, Mancini expects the bulk of it to be ready by next summer. With the U.S. lagging behind European and Asian competitors in high-speed Internet deployment and use, Mancini says the lessons learned in D.C. could help communities nationwide harness the technology to improve competitiveness and economic success. “Maybe this is a model we can use,” he says. “We are going to be able to see the impact, and I know that this has the attention of the White House.”

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