Is broadband connectivity a public utility? Getting an education, finding a job, accessing high quality healthcare: increasingly, high speed internet access is a prerequisite to full participation in many aspects of modern life. And yet, a confluence of telecommunications policy decisions and industry dynamics have left the United States with slower, scarcer, and more expensive connectivity than most of the rest of the developed world. One third of Americans don’t have home access to a high speed connection.
Susan Crawford, broadband policy expert and co-director of the Berkman Center at Harvard University, explores this issue in her new book Captive Audience, called by the New York Times “a calm but chilling state-of-play on the information age in the United States.” She suggests that we should think of high speed internet access in the same way that we think of other public utilities like electricity and running water— and that local government at the city and state level needs to take action to optimize information infrastructure for the public good.
Crawford recently joined us at the Code for America offices for a conversation with the 2013 Fellows about broadband access, policy, and the role of municipal government. We also hosted a CfA Peer Network roundtable discussion with Susan Crawford, Ashley Hand (Chief Innovation Officer, Kansas City, Mo.), John Tolva (Chief Technology Officer, City of Chicago), and Deb Acosta (Chief Innovation Officer, City of San Leandro, Calif.), moderated by Jake Brewer from the US Ignite Partnership.
Kansas City, Chicago, and San Leandro are all undertaking initiatives to roll out broadband internet access citywide. Explains John Tolva, “It’s a foundation that other businesses are built on. We [the City of Chicago] are providing capital, access, and right of way permits to lower the barrier. You’re not going to be a 21st century economy if you don’t have this foundation.”
And yet, in 19 states barriers have been raised to preempt that action and hinder the public-private partnerships that have made broadband initiatives in cities like San Leandro and Kansas City possible.
“Where a city wants to take action itself to use its control over its rights of way and assets to bring competitive fibers into its city and make sure that everyone is served at a reasonable cost, it should be able to make that decision,” says Crawford, “This is not a right-left issue, this is a thriving-in-the-21st century issue. It has implications for economic, social, and cultural development. This is about leaving [local government] the freedom to make the choice about what method to use to make it happen.”
Crawford argues that this isn’t to say that cities necessarily need to take on the role of service provider:
“Whatever form of ownership exists, it is subject to public obligations like serving everybody, making your facilities available at a reasonable cost both to competitors and to end consumers, having a very high quality of service, and serving public safety needs. Cities can do a lot just by setting up oversight, conditioning access to its rights of way, on a private actor agreeing to those public obligations.”
Ultimately, she thinks it could be local initiatives like those being driven forward by John Tolva, Deb Acosta, and Ashley Hand in collaboration with partners like Google that will allow the country to fully realize the potential of next-generation connectivity. With innovations like fiber to the home and community broadband are made available, there could be emergent — and unanticipated — use cases and outcomes for this new capacity.
Crawford likened it to when electricity was first available. At first, nobody could see what it would be useful for other than a light bulb. But once it was demonstrated publicly at the World’s Fair, people began to come up with ideas like electric kitchens and appliances — innovations we take for granted today. The same thing could happen for broadband in cities like Kansas City, where fiber is available to experiment with.
“I’d like to see cities do this one by one so that finally the whole country moves ahead,” Crawford said. “We’re better at coming up with things when we can see what might be possible. It sparks the imagination.”
Watch the full sessions here.
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