We’ve become a land of digital haves and have-nots. “Buying cheaper goods directly from wholesalers, immediately accessing government services and finding employment opportunities are increasingly only available to those who have an online connection,” say Brookings Institution researchers.
Yet multiple studies have shown that access to broadband connectivity is far from universal. The gap is most often noted in education, where a 2015 report by the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway found that 21 million students are not meeting the minimum 100 kbps per student goal set by the Federal Communications Commission.
The broadband gap reflects issues of income and race. Pew Research finds that roughly a third of households whose incomes fall below $50,000 and with children ages 6 to 17 do not have a high-speed Internet connection at home. At the other end of the spectrum, only 8.4 percent of households with annual incomes over $50,000 lack broadband.
In other words, low-income homes with kids are four times more likely to be without broadband than their middle- or upper-income counterparts. In addition, “[l]ower-income black and Hispanic households with children trail comparable white households with children by about 10 percentage points,” Pew researchers found. The White House has published similar findings, noting that black and Hispanic households are 16 and 11 percent less likely, respectively, to have an Internet connection than white households.
The federal government has taken some steps to address broadband disparity. Earlier this year, the FCC expanded its Lifeline telephone subsidy program to enable low-income consumers to access discounted broadband service.
States, cities and school districts also are stepping up with a broad range of initiatives intended to make broadband more universally accessible. That’s appropriate, given the unique assets government can bring to the table. “They are working with the big picture, they can see all the players, and they may have monies they can leverage to support social and economic development through broadband investments,” said Colin Rhinesmith, senior lecturer at Simmons College and author of Digital Inclusion and Meaningful Broadband Adoption Initiatives.
Government also is uniquely poised to build the broad coalitions needed to bridge the broadband gap. “With government, you not only have a champion, but you have someone who can bring together the stakeholders: the private sector, the nonprofits. This works best when you can have a lot of people come to the table,” he said.
This is especially true in education, where government may be better placed than the private sector to tackle certain hurdles. “Government can advocate in all parts of the state, especially the rural parts where it is often hard for the private sector to go in on its own,” said Tracy Weeks, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association.
How is government enabling broadband? The state of Utah, the city of Austin, Texas, and Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida all offer compelling examples of the ways in which government at various levels is attempting to tackle the problem.
John Speirs describes digital inclusion as foremost a conversation. In order to spread broadband adoption, the program coordinator of the Austin Office of Digital Inclusion said he needs to spark discussion within the city’s numerous departments and hundreds of programs.
“We need to speak the same language in order to move forward around these goals,” he said. “We want digital inclusion to be a core consideration in every conversation the community has.”
While Austin has been advocating for broadband equity for over a decade, the city’s push for digital inclusion took a big step forward in March 2014 when the City Council adopted a resolution calling for the development of a Digital Inclusion Strategic Plan that would map out access and adoption strategies. Planners pulled together insights from the nonprofit sector, education, public health, business and other key areas, eventually crafting a document that laid out broad strategies as well as specific initiatives.
One hallmark project, Unlocking the Connection, seeks to redress some of the economic disparity underlying the broadband gap. The project brings free basic Internet access to 1,838 residential public housing units through a partnership with Google Fiber. “We all want people to find better jobs, to eventually own a place, to break out of a possible social silo,” Speirs said. “Internet access is a first step toward that.”
The Office of Digital Inclusion also is charged with maintaining a baseline understanding of the state of local residents’ Internet adoption through a survey to be conducted once every three years. In the first such poll, researchers determined that some 55,000 city residents do not have a home computer or home Internet access. “It really helps us to zoom in on those places where we can provide the necessary skills, access and training,” Speirs said.
Training is a big part of Speirs’ agenda. Backed by the city’s Grant for Technology Opportunities initiative, the broadband office funds training programs through a range of local organizations, with an eye toward fostering digital inclusion in underserved and underconnected communities.
Austin’s inclusion efforts have been guided by an unusually detailed strategic plan. For example, the guiding document declares that the city needs “a more consistent and engaging physical presence to fully communicate the importance of having everyone connected.” The inclusion office therefore is instructed to regularly take part in community events.
Likewise, the strategic plan calls for a multifaceted marketing campaign, with specific messaging tailored to different sectors. It also spells out an imperative to engage the local volunteer community.
The strategic plan clearly indicates an intention to cast a wide net, to spread the word of digital inclusion to as many corners of the community as possible. This in turn has become Speirs’ guiding principle. “We all need to make technology more of a forefront consideration, whenever we are having conversations with the community and also with others in government,” he said.
While digital curricula and mobile devices are pushing schools everywhere to evaluate their broadband needs, Miami-Dade County Public Schools have been under special pressure. The state requires all standardized testing be done online, and by 2018 half of all academic content will need to be available in a digital format.
That includes not just PDFs of textbooks, but also video content and other resource-intensive materials, said Deborah Karcher, the district’s CIO.
Complicating matters is the district-wide trend toward BYOD. When students and staffers turn on their phones and tablets, the number of devices on the network can jump from 2,000 up to 3,000 or more. In spite of the strain on the network, administrators allow BYOD because it gives students the ability to work on the same devices in school and at home, and also can reduce the number of devices the district needs to issue.
The school district has stepped up to bridge the broadband gap with a major infrastructure build-out, growing from 1 to 10 gigabytes over the past six years. The vast majority has been paid for by E-rate, an FCC program to provide discounted telecommunications, Internet access and internal connections to eligible schools and libraries, funded by the Universal Service Fund.
That big pipe is essential, but not sufficient in and of itself. “This is not a ‘nice to have.’ It has to work all the time. It has to be available,” said Paul Smith, district director of data security and technical services. To that end, the school has turned to “traffic shaping” as the key to success in its broadband initiatives.
“You have to figure out how to manage with a limited amount of bandwidth, to make it do everything you want it to do,” he said. “That means sometimes you are either stopping or restricting certain kinds of traffic, and allowing other things to get through.”
This is most obvious during testing time, when apps and websites not directly related to testing may experience significant slowdowns. To prioritize traffic, the district has devised its own set of permissions for various sites, and also subscribes to outside services that filter traffic based on content, security and other concerns.
While the district’s network management tools are enabling it to keep up with demand for now, there’s no doubt the race to deliver adequate bandwidth is far from won. “It all goes back to the mandates,” Karcher said. “In the world of education, more and more things are being required in terms of content and testing, and this just continues to grow.”
Roughly half the states have an office dedicated to broadband. When Strategic Networks Group ranked them, Utah placed No. 8 for availability and No. 12 for growth investment. The state’s Broadband Outreach Center has an ambitious agenda that includes the development of data on commercial broadband availability for business recruitment.
Every six months the office polls all of the state’s 55 to 60 Internet providers to generate maps of available services, one residential and one for the business community. For Kelleigh Cole, director of the broadband center, these maps form the core of an economic development agenda. Her office will help potential businesses locate providers and even coordinate with cities to get the appropriate permits in place.
At the same time, the office feeds demographic data back to providers in order to help them identify underserved areas of the community.
Utah has generally high Internet and adoption rates: 92 percent of households report accessing the Internet at 25 megabits per second, which meets the FCC’s current speed threshold. But the state wants to be proactive on broadband in the face of predicted population growth, coupled with the rapid rise of Internet-enabled devices.
“We are seeing households using more and more devices, needing more and more capacity,” Cole said. “Right now we are ahead of the game, but we believe that usage is going to increase as more people use more devices and more applications that require more bandwidth.”
In addition to producing the maps, Cole’s office acts as a resource to municipalities. The center has helped various cities form plans to encourage Internet adoption and generate guiding principles for their own broadband policies. Cole also has been working to show cities how they can work with developers and Internet providers to incorporate broadband in advance of any new development.
The office has acted as a conduit for state broadband information in the development of seven regional broadband plans. “We are able to look at the state, to figure out what is working and then disseminate that information to the different groups as they go through their planning process,” Cole said.
Kelleigh Cole, director of the Utah Broadband Outreach Center. Utah is being proactive on broadband in the face of predicted population growth coupled with the rise of Internet-enabled devices. Photo by August Miller.
The broadband center also acts as the state’s advocate on connectivity issues at the national level. In late 2014, for example, the federal government initiated changes in E-rate. “We realized that a large number of our rural school districts would no longer be considered ‘rural’ under those changes,” said Cole. “Rural school districts get a higher percentage of funding for broadband through that program, so this becomes really important.”
Utah weighed in against the changes, which in the end, were not enacted.
The Broadband Outreach Center can’t single-handedly bridge the broadband gap, but with its research and advocacy efforts, it hopes to move the needle. “The state’s role is to work with the broadband providers, the cities, businesses and other partners to implement policies that encourage development,” Cole said. “I don’t have a fund to pay for infrastructure projects, but I can work with a lot of different partners to develop plans and create efficiencies.”
Looking across these city, state and school district initiatives, it’s perhaps striking to see how little they have in common. Austin works with nonprofits to put broadband into public housing, while Miami-Dade focuses on network management as the key to high-speed connections in the schools. Utah meanwhile is focused on the economic development potential of its broadband strategy.
Why such wide-ranging government efforts to close the gap? Brookings Institution researchers say it’s because broadband is a lynchpin of future prosperity. “[C]ompleting the transition to an all-digital economy will be impossible until broadband adoption looks ubiquitous like water and electricity infrastructure,” they write. “And much like electricity development in the 20th century, ensuring every American has reliable online access is a clear 21st-century mandate to maintain the country’s global economic pre-eminence.”
A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.