Don’t Leave Poor Populations out of Internet Initiatives

Technology has the power to unite but also the potential to divide.
August 12, 2014 AT 8:00 AM
By Ron Littlefield  |  Senior Fellow
Ron Littlefield, a former mayor of Chattanooga, Tenn., is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and its lead analyst on the City Accelerator initiative. A city planner by career, he also consults to government through Littlefield Associates.

The Internet can be, in many ways, an equalizer, providing previously unattainable access to valuable resources. Small businesses can reach wider audiences at lower costs. Citizens can voice their opinions for the world to see on a political leader’s Facebook page -- possibly helping spur change. K-12 online learning programs and higher education initiatives like OpenCourseWare and edX give greater education access to more students who may have traditionally been underserved. 
As digital technologies progress and evolve, the hope has been that this innovation will help resolve persistent income inequality and reduce the negative effects of economic stratification by providing a bridge of opportunity between the haves and the have-nots. In theory, relatively open and free access to markets, ideas and data makes it possible for almost anyone to better themselves.
But what if this access that is supposed to help cure inequality is, in fact, unequal in and of itself? This doesn’t bode well for leveling the playing field. 
A 2013 Pew survey noted that 70 percent of Americans age 18 and older had access to high-speed broadband connections. When coupled with the fact that another 10 percent of respondents to the survey said they used a smartphone, these access numbers don’t look half bad.
But, as a WIRED post points out, “sometimes what looks like good news isn’t,” especially when the Pew study and the FCC label any connection of 4Mbps for downloads and 1 Mbps for uploads as fast enough to be counted as “high-speed broadband.” As the WIRED writer notes, “this is absurd.”
The Pew study also shows the disparities in broadband use based on economic status, educational attainment and race. Eighty-nine percent of college graduates have a high-speed broadband connection at home, while only 57 percent of high school graduates do and 37 percent of those who didn’t graduate high school do. Eighty-eight percent of individuals with an income over $75,000 have a high-speed broadband connection, while only 54 percent of those individuals making less than $30,000 do. Seventy-four percent of White, non-Hispanic individuals have a high-speed broadband connection at home, while only 53 percent of Hispanic individuals do. You see where this is going.
A recent article in The Atlantic, “More Than Half of U.S. Public Schools Don’t Have Adequate Wireless Access,” points to disparities in the education system and notes that 39 percent of K-12 schools in the United States don’t have wireless access for the whole school. Additionally, a Pew study found 56 percent of teachers of the lowest income students say a lack of resources among students to access digital technologies is a “major challenge” to incorporating more digital tools into their teaching. By comparison, only 21 percent of teachers of the highest income students report that problem.
In the case of education and public schools, leaders are attempting to close this gap through programs like E-rate and President Obama’s ConnectEd initiative, which aims to connect 99 percent of America’s students through next-generation broadband with speeds no less than 100 Mbps and high-speed wireless networks in schools within the next 5 years.
Hopefully, within a few years the availability of ubiquitous wireless networks in schools will be the standard and students from every economic and cultural background will have access. The question is what will happen when children go home to neighborhoods with differing levels of digital service? Will they still have the same access to resources and educational choices? As it stands, the Pew study would indicate no. How do we address this problem?
My own community, Chattanooga, Tenn., has become somewhat famous in technical circles as the city with the largest, fastest and most robust fiber optic data system in the United States, built over the last six years as a “smart grid” solution to managing the municipality’s expanding electric network.
It was obvious from the outset that a smart grid system based on a network of fiber optics extended to every home and business could do more than just manage the city's electrical system. Principally, it could also be used for telephone, video and data transmission with unrivaled speed and capacity. Such a system could go well beyond delivering basic communication and entertainment to homes, but could serve a much greater purpose as a platform for education and enterprise.  
Recognizing the educational and entrepreneurial potential of such an advanced system, the city applied for federal assistance to enable the utility to extend the new fiber system into the poorer inner city neighborhoods ahead of schedule. The commitment was made, the grant was approved, the system was built and now everyone within the city utility's 600-square-mile service area has access to gigabit data connectivity. In simple terms, that is a very fast and useful connection that opens new avenues for education and new ways to do business.
By taking advantage of special circumstances, Chattanooga has built a city-wide, very high-speed data network. Other cities as well are moving quickly to deploy this new type of fiber optic infrastructure -- including Kansas City and Austin -- often with the assistance of private companies like Google that foresee the absolute necessity of such networks in the future.
If cities are to be innovative and to begin solving issues of poverty and inequality, students and citizens need equal digital access. If it is now technically possible to provide wireless service to hundreds of thousands of fans at football games, it should be possible to provide acceptable levels of service to public housing and disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Chattanooga and other cities around the U.S. have taken the necessary steps to make sure all citizens in all neighborhoods have equal access to the digital world. Every home and every business has access to the same fiber optic network. But the work is not done and it will continue to evolve as technology evolves and the public becomes even more connected. 
Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.