Leveling The Playing Field?

This past week started the COVID-postponed Intelligent Community Forum’s Annual Summit – now virtual and continuing over two weeks.  As usual as Senior Fellow at ICF, I made a presentation yesterday and led a workshop on “Bringing Broadband To Your Community”.

I have previously reported on what is happening in cities this year. In the face of COVID-inspired video conferencing and the departure from offices and some previously popular cities, the question is raised again – can we level the playing field again between the biggest metropolises and elsewhere in the US that have not had broadband?

Many communities now recognize that they will be completely left out of a post-COVID economy.  They are hoping that some outside organization – a benevolent telecommunications company or some government agency – will come in and make the necessary investment so that their community has the broadband it needs.

Considering how many politicians have included broadband as a basic part of our infrastructure, it may be possible that at least the government will provide a lot of funding next year.  But it is worth noting that talk about the government investing on broadband is not new and not all that much has happened in the past.

So in my presentation at the ICF summit, I drew attention to some examples of communities that just went ahead and built this for themselves.  You may have already heard of Chattanooga, Tennessee and Lafayette, Louisiana, both of which deployed broadband through their electric utilities that are owned by the city government.

But here I want to give some credit to two examples that are not so well known.  The first is in a poorly served urban community in San Francisco.  The second is in a rural area that had expected to be the last to get broadband in England.

Although San Francisco bills itself as the high-tech capital of the world, the reality is that 100,000 of its residents (1 in 8) do not have a high-speed Internet connection at home.  This situation, by the way, is not unique to San Francisco.  Many otherwise well-connected cities have vast areas without affordable broadband – not quite Internet deserts, but with Internet effectively out of reach to low income residents for technical or financial reasons.

So in conjunction with an urban wireless Internet provider, Monkeybrains (great name!), the city government rolled out its Fiber to Housing initiative last year.  According to a report “Can San Francisco Finally Close its Digital Divide?” in November 2019, they had already free, high-speed internet to more than 1,500 low-income families in 13 housing communities – public housing.  By this past summer, the number was increased to 3,500 families.  While there is still a long way to go, the competition has already forced traditional Internet service providers to step up their game as well.

In a very different community in rural England, there is a related story, except this region, unlike San Francisco, is the last place you would expect to find broadband.  In the northwest corner of England, surrounding the not-so-big city of Lancaster (population around 50,000), a non-profit community benefit society was created to provide broadband for the rural north.  It is called B4RN.

As they proclaim on their website, they offer “The World’s Fastest Rural Broadband [with] Gigabit full fibre broadband costing households just £30/month”.  As of the middle of last year, they had more than 6,000 fully connected rural households.

In speaking with Barry Forde, CEO of B4RN, I learned a part of the story that should resonate with many others.  The community leaders who wanted to bring broadband to their area tried to explain to local farmers the process of building out a fiber network.  They noted that the technology costs of these networks are often dwarfed by the construction costs of digging in the ground to lay the fiber. The farmers then responded that digging holes was something they could do easily – they already had the equipment to dig holes for their farming!  With that repurposing of equipment, the project could move much more quickly and less expensively.

I can’t go into the whole story here, but this video gives a good summary of the vision and practical leadership that has made B4RN a success.

Frankly, if B4RN can do it, any community can do it.  Whether it’s in one of the most costly cities or in the remote countryside, a little creativity and community cooperation can make broadband possible.

And it need not be gigabit everywhere to start or having nothing at all.  Build what you can, get people to use it and the demand will grow to support upgrades.  An intelligent community grows step by step this way.

These were the important lessons of the ICF Summit yesterday.

© 2020 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

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