Examining the importance of broadband as a critical infrastructure and the challenges cities face in reaching universal adoption.
Editor's note: The Digital Communities Special Report, which appears twice a year in Government Technology magazine, offers in-depth coverage for local government leaders and technology professionals. View all sections of the special report.
Iowa City, Iowa, is a modest-sized city, with a population of just over 73,000. But what makes it stand out is the fact that it ranks fifth in the nation overall when it comes to the percentage of households that subscribe to broadband. With 86 percent of its homes connected to high-speed Internet, Iowa City outranks San Diego, Seattle and Washington, D.C., to name just a few of the best-connected cities in the country, according to a survey by the Brookings Institution. Cities that have high levels of fast Internet connectivity to households reap more economic and educational benefits, according to Brookings: “There is no question that the Internet is a huge boon to the economy and society, but maximizing its potential is only possible if all individuals are online.”
What makes Iowa City so special? It has an educated workforce that has a relatively high average household income and large numbers of technology workers, as well as people who work from home; it’s also a university town (University of Iowa); and it has fewer senior citizens compared to other cities of its size. Most importantly, it’s a city where broadband is seen as a necessity, not a choice.
For decades, when it came to infrastructure and potential, the cities with a well developed network of roads, bridges, rail and subway lines, as well as good electrical and water utilities, were considered world leaders. Now, local governments are expected to have a digital infrastructure consisting of cable and fiber with deep penetration into every neighborhood, if they are to compete regionally, nationally and even globally. Broadband is now essential for 21st-century communications and commerce.
Take jobs. Broadband is the catalyst for economically competitive cities. America’s 50 most research- and technology-intensive industries have added 1 million jobs since 2010, and these industries are disproportionately based in cities, Bruce Katz, a researcher with Brookings, told The Economist. Education is another big reason why broadband infrastructure is critical for the ideal digital city.
A growing number of studies point to the fact that cities that lack wide adoption of broadband will struggle when it comes to educating and graduating students with the skills needed to advance in college or for sustaining an economy that is increasingly tech-driven. Local governments also have an opportunity to cut costs by creating more online services, but only if there’s close to universal adoption of broadband in the community.
And that’s where the problem lies with urban broadband infrastructure. Nationally, 75 percent of Americans had a connection to broadband in 2014, according to Brookings. But there’s a great variation in connectivity across demographic groups and between metropolitan areas. While the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara (Silicon Valley) area has the nation’s highest rate of adoption at more than 88 percent, cities like Laredo, Texas, have adoption rates of less than 58 percent.
America’s broadband infrastructure is considered to be overpriced and slow when compared to Internet speeds in other countries. Worse, it’s far from universal. Nationally, 75 percent of households have broadband, and 53 percent of rural Americans lack access to even moderate-speed service. Critics of the country’s broadband infrastructure say the lack of universal access to high-speed broadband is a drag on education and the economy.
“Think if we were at 75 percent for electricity or running water,” Adie Tomer, a research analyst with Brookings, told Governing earlier this year. “With 25 percent of the population without broadband, it has ramifications for students who don’t have access, for job seekers,” he said.
Laying cable or fiber in the ground or on poles and connecting homes to the Internet backbone is an expensive proposition, holding back the goal of low-cost, universal adoption. But high-speed wireless might be the answer. Already a small but growing number of households rely entirely on 4G mobile networks to provide not just phone service, but data needs as well. The network has been around since 2010, and it adopted IP technology in a way that significantly boosted broadband access to mobile devices with higher speeds and an emphasis on streaming data rather than just transmitting voice communications.
Now, the wireless industry is stirring interest in 5G networks. While far from being a global standard, there’s already growing excitement that it could take wireless broadband to a new level with speeds reaching 1 gigabit per second (and perhaps reaching 10 Gbps as the technology matures) and a latency of no more than 1 millisecond versus today’s 4G latency of about 50 milliseconds, according to The Economist.
But it could take years before standards emerge. There’s also a question of where the spectrum for 5G might come from, since today’s wireless devices operate in a crowded part of the radio frequency, leaving little room for 5G.
Then there’s the speed factor. The Federal Communications Commission defines minimum broadband speeds as 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads, but 44 million Americans are more likely to experience download speeds of 4 Mbps or less. Meanwhile, closure of the availability gap between those who have broadband and those who don’t appears to be slowing, according to the FCC. In other words, broadband progress has stalled.
To become the ideal digital city, urban areas realize their broadband infrastructure has to reach near-universal availability at speeds ranging from 100 Mbps up to 1 gigabit per second. Seattle commissioned a study on what it would take to implement a municipal broadband service for universal adoption, but balked at the $480 million to $685 million price tag. Still, other major cities continue to explore the idea of municipal broadband to make the Internet as universally available as water and electricity. Boston is considering the idea and, most recently, San Francisco studied what it would take to create gigabit Internet service for the entire city.
While San Francisco may be the largest city to contemplate this, it’s not the only one. At least 48 cities have some kind of gigabit service available at residential rates, according to Highspeedgeek.com. Chattanooga, Tenn., is perhaps the most famous and largest of the cities offering gigabit broadband as a municipal service, but others provide very fast Internet service either as a municipal utility or through a provider.
For a long time, the major broadband providers have downplayed the need for gigabit Internet service in cities. But Google Fiber has begun to change the equation. The service, launched in 2012, has brought gigabit service to a handful of cities, including Kansas City, Mo.; Provo, Utah; Austin, Texas; and Atlanta, with plans to add service in San Antonio, Nashville, Tenn., and Charlotte, N.C. As a result, cable providers that dominate the existing broadband infrastructure have begun to actively market their plans to provide gigabit service.
In February, a municipally owned electric utility in Huntsville, Ala., announced that it would lease its fiber lines to Google Fiber, which would deliver gigabit service to residents and businesses starting in 2017. Some see the partnership as a game-changer in how municipalities provide broadband. “The Huntsville model changes Google’s path to scale as it potentially decentralizes construction efforts to multiple cities,” according to Brookings. The partnership will “decouple” ownership of the fiber network from providing Internet service, speeding up the delivery of fast Internet service. It’s also expected to bring more municipalities into the world of gigabit service, as incumbent cable and telecom companies will compete to provide a similar service.
That’s good news for cities, big and small, that need abundant, affordable broadband for the next generation of economic growth and education.
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