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Broadband for All Will Take New Coordination, Standards

Yesterday, Cisco hosted a roundtable discussion about Internet access featuring local, regional and international perspectives. The speakers covered everything from accountability of leadership to Wi-Fi innovation.

Closeup of a modem and router with the "online" light illuminated.
Shutterstock/Antonio Salaverry
Eliminating the digital divide will require not only long-term planning and complex coordination but also novel approaches to networks, according to speakers during a Cisco-hosted online roundtable yesterday.

The event, titled “Building an Inclusive Future with Municipalities,” kicked off with comments from Antoinette Meier, director of mobility and innovation for the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG). SANDAG, which represents a region of 19 local governments, has developed a transportation plan that represents a “paradigm shift” in thinking, Meier said.

Specifically, the plan recognizes that broadband is an essential part of transportation and can lead to smarter, cleaner, safer and more equitable outcomes for all citizens.

“It really recognizes that technology has fundamentally changed transportation… we’re not adding capacity to our transportation system by building out more roads, adding lanes for cars — we’re really proposing a major investment in digital infrastructure that will allow us to manage our transportation system and maximize our existing infrastructure,” Meier explained.

Meier mentioned that her team formed a multidiscliplinary task force to examine the digital divide in the San Diego region. The task force found a lack of competition in the region. Most areas only have two potential broadband providers, while some have just one option. Affordability and service quality are also significant issues.

“These higher-cost plans don’t necessarily equate to higher-quality, higher-speed service,” Meier noted. “In fact, some of the highest-priced plans offered… in our rural areas and to our tribal communities don’t even come close to meeting the FCC definition or threshold for broadband.”

To begin work on the Internet access problem, Meier said the region, through a partnership with the California Transit Association, will construct 18 miles of middle-mile fiber along a section of California State Route 67 in order to bring more affordable Internet to communities near the route. Meier added that her team also plans to leverage and share public-sector fiber in the city of San Diego.

Meier emphasized that addressing broadband disparities demands agencies and stakeholders — in fields from education to public safety to business — to realize that they can’t fix the issue by themselves.

“What we saw was many of these organizations were already doing a lot of work, but it wasn’t well coordinated,” Meier said. “Sometimes there were these redundant services and programs, and they were competing for the same resources, and cities weren’t working together on this issue that clearly crosses jurisdictional boundaries.”

Eugene Mejia, deputy chief technology officer for Gilbert, Ariz., pointed out that his town has benefited from having fiber infrastructure that connects various government services. This existing infrastructure has allowed staff to be more nimble in improving services, without having to worry as much about “mundane tasks.”

However, Gilbert still faces a common hurdle: funding. With this in mind, Mejia said it’s important to be forward-thinking. For example, it’s a good idea to assess whether a municipality’s development code can allow for rapid broadband expansion. He also mentioned Gilbert is exploring a dig-once approach, that is, putting in a broadband conduit while tearing up ground for new roads so as to save time and money in the long run.

“Can you execute on a plan so you’re not doing things twice or three times?” Mejia posed.

But even with time-saving activities, Mejia realizes closing the digital divide will take prolonged commitment. As such, he’s thankful the town already has an RFP plan for the future.

“It takes years to accomplish this, and it’s going to take us years to continue to have this conversation,” he said.

Tiago Rodrigues, CEO of the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA), shared what he has seen on the global stage. WBA includes technology members from around the world — from Apple to Samsung — and develops practices, guidelines and standards for broadband.

One of the developments is a standard called open roaming, which is the idea of connecting multiple Wi-Fi networks for far-ranging, convenient Internet access. This standard, Rodrigues said, addresses the headaches that people often experience when using Wi-Fi, such as having to put in new credentials all the time or worrying about whether there’s going to be enough bandwidth in a particular area.

Rodrigues provided details about an open roaming project in Belgium that involves five interconnected municipalities. After a user inputs a single set of credentials, they can move between cities with fluid Internet access.

“I can visit all of those five cities, always with the same connection,” Rodrigues explained. “So I don’t need to go into every single network, go through a painful process to register myself. I just connect.”

This setup also provides a control for privacy. Because the combined networks have a governing agent, bad actors can be dealt with.

“We know the entities that are part of this federation,” Rodrigues said. “Data privacy can be guaranteed. And if someone doesn’t play fair … it can be identified in the federation and can be expelled.”
Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.