The recent repeal of net neutrality regulations has concerned cities across the country about how the rollback will impact their communities. The repeal is likely to make it more difficult for municipal governments to foster digital equity, even with many cities dedicating resources to ensuring that all residents have access to the Internet, equipment they need to get online and the skills to successfully manage cyberspace. These communities are typically low income, and their lack of equal access to the Internet is contributing to what is being termed the “digital divide.” As with wealth inequality, low-income and remote communities could pay a dire economic price for this gap in Internet access.
While the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), effectively sharing duties, the charge of ensuring that Internet service providers (ISPs) don’t abuse the policy falls solely on the latter agency. Chairman Ajit Pai of the FCC has stated that the rollback of previous regulations will not have a negative socioeconomic impact. However, the FTC does not have specialized expertise in telecommunications, nor do they employ engineers with technical experience in data network management practices. The repeal of net neutrality has the very real potential to make the digital divide even greater, cutting off access to this vital lifeline to communities’ most vulnerable populations, and even hobbling emerging business enterprises before they get off the ground. Part of the new deal between the FCC and the FTC involves reviewing complaints by consumers regarding the failure of ISPs to comply with regulations. This shifts the burden of collecting this data to the shoulders of the communities whom it will affect the most severely.
Cities, with the guidance and leadership of their citizens, must begin to form oversight of ISPs themselves. And location intelligence is critical to this task. With regards to halting and reversing the growth of the digital divide — and the impact of rescinding net neutrality — communities across the nation must understand the costs to underserved populations before permanent damage is done. Will people have to pay more for Internet and do more to get quality service? And will people who aren’t able to afford these higher prices be able to reach their full scientific, entrepreneurial and creative potential? These are the questions that should concern municipal governments when considering the possible economic and social repercussions of this legislative shift, and how to react.
In the near future, there will be a need to deploy citizen-driven government oversight with respect to helping the FTC do their job. Communities will need to find a way to more accurately track Internet access and usage on their own. And when it comes to big data, location intelligence technologies such as spatial analytics can connect disparate pieces of data to help local governments make better-informed decisions. But the costs of inaction may not be as apparent since commercial technology often moves at a faster pace than the rules crafted to accommodate it. And more and more individuals and organizations rely on digitally transformative capabilities regardless of their geography.
Businesses today — big and small — utilize Internet connectivity in areas far more diverse and revolutionary than simply allowing personnel to access the Web for email and Web searches. Increasingly, the physical machinery these businesses employ is itself wired online through a network of sensors known as the Internet of Things (IoT), allowing them to control and monitor their performance, and to keep better track of entire industrial systems. But this network that businesses depend on might not be as fast and well-connected for some as it is for others. Smaller businesses will find mere high-speed Internet availability an impassable barrier to entry. IoT processes can’t work without access to the same quality of internet the rest of the country enjoys. And at the very least, these entry-level players will be cut off from vital parts of the supply chain.
By starting with a baseline map of access and usage of any location in the U.S. on Dec. 14 (the date of repeal), there may be a way, in nearly real time, to monitor ISPs to ensure they don’t hamper Internet access in underserved communities. Taking this capability a step further, cities could take that baseline geospatial gap analysis of who does and does not have access to broadband in an area — then overlay schools, social service locations, low-income housing locations and so forth — thus helping provide a more comprehensive picture of the most at-risk areas, allowing cities to develop and implement plans to help them.
Three maps were prepared using location intelligence technology to help contextualize this issue further, and which examine this gap in access with the following data sets, in a visual, geographic context:
The State of Internet Access — A straightforward map showing both access to high-speed Internet availability by county, as well as one showing whether fiber, DSL or cable is predominant in each location. As you zoom into each map, they kick over to ZIP codes to see more local nuances and differences. High-Speed Internet Deserts — Using population and the high-speed at home variable, Esri identified the 10 ZIP codes in the U.S. with the highest population but lowest penetration of high-speed Internet access. These areas were geoenriched to pull basic demographic statistics, like population and median income, as well as the predominant Internet uses. The idea behind this map was to highlight the areas that have already been left behind to identify any commonalities among them. What Americans Do Online — This series of layers explores different types of Internet behavior and how changes to net neutrality might affect them. Of particular interest is the map examining excess Internet usage. This is essentially the inverse of the Internet deserts, although rather than looking at access, the map highlights the locations where the greatest number of people spend 10-plus hours a day online. These are the places likely to be most disrupted by any net neutrality changes, given their high usage under the current system. We haven’t yet seen the consequences of the FCC net neutrality rules’ repeal. But we do know what the digital divide looks like; and a lack of oversight could mean the potential for ISPs to further exacerbate the problems that communities already deal with in providing high-speed Internet access to less fortunate citizens. This makes it all the more important to make capabilities available to monitor these possible problems down the road. Because the Internet isn’t just an information tool anymore — it is an engine that powers and connects literally every aspect of our world, from small business up to national government. And the more communities, individuals and organizations are able to have access to that engine, the more productive the economy can be as a whole.
Amen Ra Mashariki is head of urban analytics for Esri. Previously he served as chief analytics officer of New York City and CTO for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.