Digital equity might have seemed a marginal topic a few years ago, a policy luxury for streamers or gamers. But after a yearlong (and counting) pandemic forced everyone from first-graders to octogenarians to depend on computers and streaming video, digital equity has become absolutely critical. Today we have online school, online work, online access to doctors and nurses, to say nothing of the ways that streaming entertainment displaced most forms of social interaction.
As a teacher, I’ve seen firsthand how internet access divides a classroom down the middle, with some students able to attend Zoom classes easily, while others have extreme difficulty. That’s just one of a thousand examples of how a lack of access to good internet creates widening inequality in our cities, in everything from education to banking to takeout to vaccine appointments.
In normal times, especially given the 2020 COVID budget crunch, cities would be hamstrung when it comes to doing anything about this problem. But these are not normal times. This month, cities across the country are getting a huge one-time influx of money, thanks to Joe Biden, congressional Democrats, and the American Rescue Plan (ARP).
In a city like St. Paul, it amounts to $187 million, and it’s targeted for COVID-related assistance and a list of infrastructure types that, critically, includes broadband.
“St. Paul is getting $178 million, half of it today and half in one year,” explained Chris Mitchell, who directs the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self Reliance. “That money can be spent on a variety of things — budget holes, water and wastewater infrastructure, and broadband. And it’s quite flexible.”
Mitchell has spent years trying to nudge cities and counties into investing in municipal broadband. Normally, his work focuses on rural areas, often left behind by the internet markets. But there is just as much of an incentive to think about broadband in larger cities, which often have stark disparities in access to high speed internet.
“We should set aside some of the money that’s more flexible for broadband,” said Mitchell. “If we develop a plan, knowing that the city will write a check, we’ll know what’s happening. This is a path to the city not being reliant on Comcast for its needs.”
Most people in urban America have little choice when it comes to internet access. If you’re lucky, you might have two companies that compete under “franchise” agreements to provide service in a city. But in practice, most places just have one provider, a monopoly that sets rates and access levels without much regulation.
That uneven infrastructure landscape means that a lot of working-class areas of town are left behind by high prices or sub-par service.
“We have significant problems with internet access,” Mitchell told me the other day. “Almost everyone has a problem: If you’re a low-income family, you probably don’t have good internet access because it’s too costly. If you move around a lot, you rely on a mobile connection rather than something that’s more reliable.”
St. Paul grants companies permission to provide internet access within the city every few years — the current franchisees are Comcast and Centurylink — and that negotiation provides an opportunity to leverage benefits for people. For example, both of the current providers are supposed to provide a small income-based discount for people who qualify. (In practice, this can be a difficult application and is not always applicable.)
One of the key reasons that Minneapolis’ broadband network is so much better than St. Paul’s is that it has a decade-old partnership with US Internet (USI), a Minnetonka-based company. Years ago, the city teamed up to fund an admittedly spotty municipal wireless service network. But that partnership allowed USI to invest in fiber optic broadband throughout much of south Minneapolis. That in turn allowed the city’s fiber service to be both faster and more affordable than the larger national providers.
Ask around yourself. Pretty much without exception, any USI fiber customer gushes accolades about their broadband service, which reaches speeds of 300 megabits per second (at minimum). By far the biggest complaint about USI is that it’s not available everywhere. Moving from a Minneapolis neighborhood with USI fiber to a part of town without it amounts to losing a cherished pet, and I’m convinced there are people who decide where to live based on their fiber service availability.
Chris Mitchell would like St. Paul to use some of its ARP money to copy and improve this model, perhaps leasing a new network to the company. Or alternately, the city could build the fiber network itself, representing something of a moonshot for a municipality that only recently began organizing trash collection.
Either way, there are a lot of options for how to leverage the funding, and it could do wonders for digital equity in St. Paul’s poorest communities. Crucially, they could use COVID money to focus on the city’s poorest neighborhoods first.
“By working with a provider like USI, we can increase their investment in St. Paul to ultimately bring a choice to every resident and lower prices for everyone,” said Chris Mitchell. “Through competition [we] can do a better job connecting low-income facilities, and apartment buildings in particular.”
The way that Mitchell envisions the project, the city’s broadband money could be targeted toward neighborhoods least served by companies today. They could even start by connecting large housing complexes, like University Avenue’s Skyline Tower, which have hundreds of low-income people who would greatly benefit from affordable broadband.
One caveat: Given Biden’s ambitious agenda, there’s still a good chance that Congress could pass another big spending package, one focused directly on infrastructure. Those additional dollars might allow cities throughout Minnesota to get extra millions targeted at broadband investments in the next six months.
But with a 50-50 partisan split in the U.S. Senate, another wave of federal spending is not guaranteed. Meanwhile, the flexible federal dollars exist right now, and cities can begin planning what to do with the one-time dollars.
Two key leaders on the St. Paul City Council said earlier this month that the ARP money represents a “once-in-a-generation opportunity,” writing that the money could “reconstruct both physical and social infrastructure.”
At least to my mind, broadband aimed at reversing digital inequality would check all the boxes, providing long-lasting benefits and leveling the online playing field for everyone in St. Paul. Moments like these, where a nine-figure pot of municipal money appears, don’t arrive every day. St. Paul should not squander the chance.