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.