A Roadmap to Better Broadband

Communities face a lot of challenges in improving Internet access. The key is engaging stakeholders in a collaborative process.

High-speed Internet access is essential. It is as simple as that. What is genuinely complicated is making it happen at the ground level. We face a range of technological, economic and political challenges in solving this problem. These issues range from existing providers that don't welcome new competition, to state barriers and regulations, to obstacles at the federal level for communities trying to find a creative, local solution to their lack of high-quality access.

More and more, local governments find themselves in alien territory, potentially having to decide between investing in their own municipal networks or partnering with the private sector for modern telecommunications infrastructure.

For over 100 years, telecommunications services have been something largely left to the private sector, with consumers protected by state and federal regulations. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler has been pushing for greater competition among broadband providers, and a White House Broadband Opportunities Council has been formed to remove barriers to local-government investment. This is an exciting time -- a time for imaginative policies to usher in a new generation of innovation as the Internet continues to transform all aspects of our society.

That's why our organization, Next Century Cities (NCC), recently released a comprehensive policy agenda identifying concrete steps that all broadband stakeholders -- government officials, community members, and the "civil society" of non-governmental organizations and institutions -- can take to help achieve fast, reliable and affordable Internet access.

Next Century Cities, representing 100 cities, towns, and counties across the country, is focused on expediting the expansion of the country's broadband infrastructure to ensure access for all. That access allows for improvements in economic development, e-government, education, transportation, public safety, participatory democracy and much more.

Each stakeholder has a role to play. NCC's policy agenda is a way to help navigate the process -- sharing suggestions and examples of excellence for each group. It can be used as a map to guide the way, giving communities across the country a real sense of how all levels of government and civil society can work together to make tangible progress in the effort to develop quality broadband Internet networks.

For instance, at the local level, leaders can help make broadband deployment easier through smart policies such as streamlining permitting requirements and adopting "dig once" policies that enable the laying of fiber without unnecessary disruption to everyday life. These fiber cables could be used by local governments to provide service directly, as in Lafayette, La., or to facilitate independent Internet service providers, as Mount Vernon does in Washington State.

At the state and federal level, elected officials can contribute to successful local projects by adopting policies that promote, rather than restrict, the ability of communities to pursue whatever model of broadband deployment best fits their needs.

As the ultimate beneficiaries of high-speed Internet access, community members can also make important contributions to broadband projects. For example, in Charlotte, N.C., the citizen-led campaign Charlotte Hearts Gigabit has elevated the issue and has encouraged city leaders as they work toward an access solution in their city.

Finally, key players in civic life can similarly help to facilitate broadband projects. Anchor institutions such as libraries, schools, and hospitals can be portals for better access to broadband Internet. Philanthropic organizations have provided, and can continue to provide, key support to broadband-friendly efforts. In Chattanooga, Tenn., and Kansas City, for instance, the Enterprise Center and KC Digital Drive, respectively, have worked to promote the adoption of broadband by city residents.

In the 21st century, high speed Internet access has emerged as more than just an information superhighway. It is essential infrastructure for improving our quality of life. That's why it's so important that all of a community's stakeholders be involved in making it happen.

John Martin is a senior editor for Governing.
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