Start with the end in mind.
For smart city broadband to become universally accessible to everyone, the juggernaut of infrastructure, attracting service providers and getting buy-in from users should start with the desired benefit, or the end result.
Panel experts speaking during the virtual “Connected Communities Episode 2 Smart City Futures” webinar Nov. 12 said universal high-speed internet was the backbone on which a successful smart city, town or rural community must be built.
Trying to create a smart city without it “was like building on sand,” said Susan Crawford, a professor of law at Harvard Law School and the author of “Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution – and Why America May Miss It.”
“There are 50 percent of Americans who do not have access to high-speed internet, Crawford said.
The “digital divide” or gaps in internet coverage between those who have high speed fiber optic or other modern internet capabilities, and those who don’t, has been brought to painful bear by the coronavirus pandemic.
“About 157 million Americans are not using the internet at sufficient levels” to meet their needs, she said.
The current patchwork across the U.S., including fiber, cable services, copper telephone wiring or spotty wireless service, is unable to provide equitable access for education or a remote workforce.
And even now, in 2020, some areas have no internet access at all.
Universal broadband access should be considered a public utility like water, sewer or electric services, she said, and government leadership on all levels should be willing to act.
High-speed internet service is essential to citizens to participate in modern society, said Crawford.
“If America can get an electric line to every home” it can get high speed access there too, she said.
Covid-19 has brought the glaring impact insufficient digital access to mainstream attention. The U.S. lags far behind China and other Asian countries that have moved ahead — with government support — to create and wire its citizenry at faster, more efficient levels, some countries as high as 90 percent of their populations.
Covid’s impact on cities and towns, many of whom rely on business or leisure and hotel taxes to fund their coffers, has made it difficult to invest public funds in infrastructure, according to Blair Levin, an author and non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, an American research think tank.
“It’s really hard to become ‘smart’ when you’re broke,” Levin said of many city agencies and government.
Because fixing the issue of broadband access for everyone is “greater than we thought” it will take collaborations and partnerships between the public and private sectors to solve the problems of infrastructure and services.
From educating children during cornavirus to working remotely, paying bills or looking for a job, there is no doubt the internet is a fact of modern life.
Levin said children – especially young children –,are at risk for a significant year-long slide in 2020 because many do not have adequate or appropriate access to remote education or the network or individual support they need to succeed. The BBC reported many children in the UK are already showing signs of educational slip and habit regression, especially among its youngest.
Andy Berke, mayor of Chattanooga,Tennessee, said the creation of its Innovation District had become a model for digital equity and access across business, entrepreneurial start-ups, arts and leisure sectors.
In 2015 the city set aside roughly 140 acres in its downtown as the Innovation District.
“When you talk about quality of life, it’s the long term return on investment (ROI) and broad band [service] is one of the best ROIs we will make,” Berke said.
According to a Brookings website report in January, Chattanooga launched the “first fiber optic network able to provide 1 gig (now 10-gig) of speed to any location.
Addressing education and work-from-home flexibilities, Chattanooga has extended high-speed internet service for the next decade to about 28,000 economically disadvantaged households.
In order to receive the free service households must qualify under federal Title 1 National Lunch Program guidelines for free and reduced lunch services.
From job creation to resilience and reduced energy usage, the return is “five, to six, to seven-fold,” he said.
The economy expands too, with a plan to connect every citizen. The process and implementation creates middle-income jobs necessary to get the job done.
It’s not the “what” of high-speed internet service, but the “why” that needs to be successfully addressed, said Mike Grigsby, director of innovation and technology for Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Overcoming cultural barriers was probably the most stubborn and persistent challenge in creating universal fiber access across the nation, he said.
Two additional major challenges are implementing technology and structural challenges such as infrastructure and shared data usage.
“It’s in communicating the value and the benefits” associated with having these systems, that matters most, Grigsby said.
Changing the cultural paradigm is hard because people have to change the way they view, and more importantly value, internet service. Those who see high-speed internet purely in terms of accessing or consuming entertainment will place a different, and likely lower value, on having it, than those who use it for education or work.
“When people understand [the value] they are more willing to use and support it. Focus on the desired outcome and line up the steps to achieve it,” Grigsby said.
From individual access to use in the public sector data and its collection walks a fine line between protecting privacy and using smart city information for the greater good.
Smart data can be used to monitor traffic flows or downtown congestion times, as well as large volumes created by events such as concerts, or where people tend to go afterward. These predictors can modulate public transportation or traffic flows.
Steph Stoppenhagen, director of strategy and innovation at Black & Veatch in Portland, Oregon, cited San Diego’s regional strategy to address underserved broadband areas in “Promise Zones,” known as Opportunity Zones in other parts of the country.
“Technology, transit, food, housing vocational training” are aspects the San Diego strategy aims to address in part, with high speed internet access.
“It’s the last-mile crisis,” Stoppenhagen said of the challenges of financing the most expensive “leg,” or final stretch of broadband infrastructure set-up and choosing the right technologies to serve the community.
There’s never been a more urgent time to think creatively and consider different ways to work together such as partnering with existing infrastructure or thinking about new collaborations, said Virginia Lam Abrams, senior vice president of Starry, Inc., in Boston.
“[Target] a different group of stakeholders you normally would not consider,” Abrams said.
While the pandemic has prompted more awareness of internet service “haves” and “have nots” addressing the implementation issue won’t happen overnight, according to Grigsby.
“It happens with time, and building relationships and building on incremental successes,” he said.