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What's New in Civic Tech: FCC Proposal to Lower U.S. Broadband Standards Raises Concerns

Plus, Nashville launches one-stop website to better serve residents, encouraging tech growth in Detroit is an ongoing project, and technologists in Anchorage work with city’s treasury department to improve fine collection process.

In response to the Federal Communications Commission’s proposal to lower the U.S. broadband standard from 25 to 10 Mbps, a group of lawmakers have sent a letter in protest.

What’s at question is the national definition of how fast Internet must be to qualify as broadband, a rate that was raised from a minimum download speed of 4 to 25 Mbps as part of the 2015 Broadband Progress Report. This rate is significant, because it determines the number of U.S. households considered to be connected to broadband, a number often central to ongoing efforts at all levels of government to foster better connectivity.

The proposal was first floated in August in an FCC request for comment titled “Concerning Deployment of Advanced Telecommunications Capability to All Americans in a Reasonable and Timely Fashion.” The lawmakers expressed concern that reducing the rate would be a cop-out, a way for government to shirk its responsibility to bring broadband to rural areas and other underserved regions. Rural broadband has been a challenging issue for the FCC and a number of state governments. Reducing the qualifying rate by more than half is akin to switching the difficulty setting of a video game to "easy" because winning is a struggle on "hard" or "normal."

One FCC commissioner also criticized the proposal in a tweet. Jessica Rosenworcel, who was first nominated as a commissioner under President Obama before being confirmed for an additional term in August by the U.S. Senate, wrote that lowering the rate is a poor way to solve broadband deficits.

“It’s crazy for @FCC to think it can solve our #broadband problem by lowering national standard from 25 to 10 MBps,” Rosenworcel wrote.


Nashville Launches hubNashville, a One-Stop Website to Better Serve Residents

Nashville launched a Web portal this week designed to serve as a centralized location online for residents to easily find city services, from a place to report potholes to information about contacting the Tennessee State Fair.

The portal is called hubNashville, and it’s the result of 18 months of planning and consultations with both city staffers and members of the community. The launch of the portal makes Nashville the latest major city to build an online presence that resembles that of private companies like Amazon, which has a one-stop site where users can easily find or search for whatever they need.

For many years, government websites have been labyrinthine, often too much text and links to dozens of pages for the many agencies that make up a city. Finding information was difficult, especially if you didn’t know the exact department that had what you were looking for.

Sites like Nashville’s employ cleaner, more minimalistic designs that highlight functionality such as the search bar. They also give prominence to lists of the most popular topics. One feature of Nashville’s new site that is especially Amazon-esque is a tracker. Whereas a user might track a delivery of coffee filters on Amazon, a Nashville resident can track requests to have a broken streetlight repaired.

“Government exists to serve residents and make people’s lives easier whenever possible,” said Nashville Mayor Megan Barry in a press release. “The hubNashville system gives Metro new tools to know about issues as soon as they arise and immediately start tracking and resolving them.”


As Investments Increase in Detroit, Google Moves to City’s Center

Google announced this week that it will be moving its offices from suburban Birmingham, Mich., to downtown Detroit just weeks after a $27.5 million investment was made in creating equitable housing in the city.  

Both developments play into Detroit’s ongoing aspirations to transcend its long history as a hub for automotive manufacturing and evolve into a center for tech and innovation. The Google move is a significant boost to those hopes, as the company is also expanding the size of the office that it is relocating, going from about 17,000 square feet to nearly double that size. There is also likely to be an expanded workforce for that office, which focuses on automotive advertising.

This announcement comes just weeks after out-of-town developers announced the $27.5 million housing development, which will focus on affordable housing and market-rate apartments to stem the complex gentrification challenges that have faced the city since its bankruptcy in 2014.

Another recent boost to Detroit’s tech aspirations is the development of some civic tech progress as well, specifically a portal that simplifies the process of paying water bills. This portal was built so that Detroit Water and Sewerage customers would no longer have to stand in long lines or take time off work to pay bills. This is encouraging for the city’s tech scene because it was also built by a 24-year-old University of Michigan grad student who is native to the city and has started a company that is based there and aims to make government digital.


Anchorage Innovation Team Works with City’s Treasury Department to Improve Fine Collection

Earlier this year, Bloomberg Philanthropies gave Anchorage, Alaska, a three-year, $1.5 million grant for one of its innovation teams, designed to combat long-standing civic challenges with data and tech in cities across the country.

Alaska’s team, however, recently took a paper-based approach to innovation that is netting the city positive results when it comes to collecting unpaid traffic tickets and other fines. The city’s treasury department had long sent dense, text-heavy collection letters to those who owed, but the innovation team suggested instead sending a brief correspondence that said on the envelope, “You really need to open this.”

According to local news reports, the innovation team’s suggested changes have already made a big difference, leading to a potential revenue boost of almost $1 million over last year.

It’s been a great year for Anchorage making fast progress in terms of innovation, as the city hired a chief innovation officer as well.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.