Back in the oughts, community groups warned of a new kind of class divide that threatened to mar the new digital landscape. Without government action, the so-called digital divide would wall off the world’s poor from the wealth of new innovation and social opportunity. Since then, the explosion of mobile technology has somewhat narrowed the gap that loomed at that time, but many today still lack access to quality broadband connections, even as broadband has turned into an essential utility for the Information Age.
In Washington, conservative lawmakers have disinvested from infrastructure of all sorts, including technological and telecommunications resources. But the longstanding federal neglect has presented local and state policymakers with an opportunity to spawn homegrown solutions for technologically underserved communities closer to home.
Drawing from local activists and institutions, neighborhood enterprise and public infrastructure, micro-broadband networks are springing up in enclaves that commercial Internet service giants traditionally ignore as “unprofitable.” The Roosevelt Institute’s analysis of New York City as a laboratory for municipal broadband shows that, with political will and public investment, even a tech-poor community can reorient its communications ecosystem. Even when Congress malignly neglects infrastructure, the thirst for technological access can be an avenue toward self-reliant community development and grassroots democracy.
Unlike other utilities like water—which are often saddled with bureaucracy and deteriorating infrastructure—universal, free broadband access could be easy to kickstart. In New York, a media-saturated city but a severely stratified one, grassroots broadband solutions are slowly shifting the marketplace by deepening broadband’s reach in neighborhoods that have historically been dismissed as a “poor return on investment.”
Currently, communities of color and poor regions, both urban and rural, have surprisingly low levels of broadband access. (The report points out, “Only a little over half of African-American households have home broadband,” largely due to cost, and broadband use lags in households with less education and income.) Often the bottleneck is due to telecommunications monopolies refusing to invest in markets where consumers are too poor to afford the fee, or in isolated rural regions. But RI argues that this actually presents an opportunity for government to “disrupt” the market and catalyze economic revitalization. In fact, only the government can fill such a need, they argue, because only a municipality can marshal enough public resources to make universal broadband access a reality.
For urban residents, free WiFi is more than a nice perk at a cafe; it is critical for public education, political participation, and the cultural life of a city. And only a truly public, government-managed broadband provider can negotiate free or low-cost access fees for everyone in the coverage area. Free broadband offers digital interfaces for school children, connects the unemployed to local job opportunities, and facilitates e-government services.
Researchers identified two approaches to universalizing broadband access. A city could seek to lower costs for all consumers with city-run programs for “public option” service, or tackle barriers to access in under-resourced communities such as public-housing projects. One model was pioneered in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, when the nonprofit Red Hook Initiative launched a post-disaster WiFi project through the combined efforts of local tech businesses and volunteers.
A similar project for a WiFi corridor at a Queensbridge public-housing project used wireless mesh technology combined with municipal seed money to extend the city’s telecommunications backbone. A ripple effect was the generation of a tech-social movement: Community members and city officials collaborated to assess working-class residents’ technology needs and goals, and tenants and community-based organizations and businesses worked collectively to develop policies around access, and helped map out long-term expansion plans. The civic energy sparked by the project was itself a demonstration of how cities can fuse principles of hyperlocal activism and universal public ownership.
There’s also room for participation from a mix of private- and public-sector actors, from local software startups to municipal libraries. And over time, with sustained government support, a hyperlocal network can scale up to cover a neighborhood, city, or even an entire state.
Each new WiFi mini-network, the researchers found, can be one node of a wider urban mesh. With open-source technology and local coordination, eventually, “these hotspots will be so ubiquitous that they will in fact create a seamless and low-cost (or free) experience for WiFi users.” This critical mass can stimulate larger-scale public investment along with locally serving private sector industry.
Rakeen Mabud, co-author of the report, said that if a tiny public broadband project could “reach a truly universal scale, it can disrupt the market of monopoly players with more competition and bring down costs for everyone.”
Maya Wiley, New School senior vice president for social justice, who had input on the report and advised the de Blasio administration on citywide broadband, says cities like New York should build technology policy frameworks that prioritize long-term community benefits: “We need to be doing those kinds of small-scale [approaches] so that we have a way to scale them over time, and at the same time we’re actually helping real people…who need the opportunity to be connected to educational opportunities, jobs and innovation, in all the ways they can’t be, when they fundamentally just don’t even have the access.”
Municipal broadband proponents face a daunting political landscape under Trump, whose ultra-pro-business Federal Communications Commission has coddled monopolies, while the White House founders on long-hyped promises to revamp the nation’s tattered infrastructure.
Nonetheless, advocates argue that, with or without (or in opposition to) Big Tech, underserved neighborhoods hungry for free broadband represent a ripe public market for grassroots public investment.
“The climate is not what we want” in Washington, says Wiley, but for local governments and community groups, that’s just free room for non-commercial solutions for bridging the tech gap: “Because of the market failure caused by business models that require high prices and density, in rural areas where they don’t have density and in urban areas where people can’t afford the prices…there’s an opportunity,” she says.
At a political moment when we’re discussing universal health care and even universal income, universal Internet access should be seen as a social right and an economic entitlement. It’s also a platform for small-scale democracy, moving the poor from the digital world’s margins to the political front lines.