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Good-quality, affordable broadband is the difference between inclusion or exclusion from society.
On April 4, a lawsuit over the Flint water crisis brought forth by several organizations—including the ACLU of Michigan, Concerned Pastors for Social Action, and the Natural Resources Defense Council—was settled.
Flint had been on my mind recently, before news of the settlement. It was about two years ago that news first broke: Inadequate treatment and aging infrastructure gave way to lead-contaminated drinking water, sparking a tragic—and avoidable—humanitarian crisis. I was weighing the crisis as an instance of “access” and how complicated that concept can be. Flint residents had access to drinking water, but in a far different way than their Detroit counterparts a mere 57 miles away.
Clean drinking water is fundamental to our lives: We cannot survive without it. This is a simple premise, but access to clean drinking water is anything but. Access is not a binary issue—it can mean something entirely different depending on who and where you are. As Flint taught us, when access to basic resources like water is solely driven by economic and social factors, the consequences are catastrophic.
In an ever-connected world, the internet has taken on a fundamental role. While internet access is not quite as essential as clean drinking water, it is starting to get close. In less than 25 years, the internet has become woven into every aspect of our society. Access to the internet is essential if you want to get a job, access financial and government services, do homework or simply stay in touch with your family. Increasingly, good-quality, affordable access to the internet is a key dividing line between whether you are included in or excluded from our society.
Like access to water, access to the internet isn’t binary—it can be better or worse. As we look around the world, it’s increasingly clear that quality of internet access often maps to factors like income, geography, gender, and education. A talented coder in the Bay Area most likely has a gigabit internet connection and a variety of devices that are secure and highly configurable. Unfortunately, huge parts of the population—including people in poorer neighborhoods of “rich” cities like New York—face spotty connections, prohibitive data costs and limited digital skills. They end up with insecure old smartphones, low data allowances, and, most importantly, only the most basic of computing and communication capabilities.
Low-quality access often creates a substantial economic and social disadvantage. As Mozilla uncovered through recent research in Kenya, those with low-quality access more frequently fall prey to fake news and phishing than people with better access and more digital skills. They are limited to being content consumers, rather than creators. And, they are more likely to trade personal data for “free” products. Worse, the poorly-connected are already society’s most vulnerable: Low-income individuals with no higher education background, according to recent Pew research.
For those who don’t experience low-quality access firsthand, the solution may appear simple: Get internet companies to lay more fiber optic cables. Or wait until Silicon Valley companies deploy wifi-equipped drones. Big companies certainly have a huge role to play, but they have proven over the last 25 years to be only part of the solution.
As we know from the history of services like water and electricity, the market alone won’t ensure everyone has quality access to essential services. We need a combination of big companies, small entrepreneurs, community-led solutions, philanthropy, and government involvement. And, most importantly, we need people facing low-quality access firsthand to be involved in finding and building solutions.
For 20 years, I’ve been on the front lines of work like this: approaching access from a community level and creating community solutions. At telecentre.org, we worked with local experts and leaders to support and connect local technology centers in more than 30 countries. What we saw during those years: The power of people taking hold of their own technological destiny at the village and neighborhood level. At Mozilla today, we’re trying to take this same approach for the era of wifi and smartphones. We work with community technologists, activists, and educators all around the world.
There is a growing list of examples of community-led solutions improving access.
In Chattanooga, Tennessee, a municipal, city-owned fiber network has given residents internet access that’s up to 250 times normal speeds. It’s “The City That Was Saved by the Internet,” wrote Motherboard last year. The actual fiber infrastructure was just the start. Local educators, developers, and entrepreneurs leapt to build apps and programs on top of the fiber network, creating a cleaner, safer, smarter city.
For example, local high schools collaborated with University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to launch Wireless Earth Watchdogs, a gigabit-enabled, real-time water quality monitoring system. Chattanooga Public Library created the GigLab, giving residents access to gigabit-enabled hardware like Oculus Rift headsets and a Nvidia Tesla GPU. And Chattanooga’s STEM School launched a project granting classrooms around the country remote access to a 4K microscope at the University of Southern California. One of the schools participating in the project? Mott Middle College High School in Flint.
Community-led innovation is flourishing beyond Chattanooga. At the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, a team of professors and students are developing and deploying the Gram Marg Solution for Rural Broadband. The project leverages unused TV white space spectrum and open-source, low-cost hardware to provide affordable internet access to rural communities. They’re currently operating in 25 villages, but have the potential to reach hundreds of thousands of rural villages across the country. As a result, citizens can access e-Governance services, digital financial services and more. In South Africa, Afri-Fi: Free Public WiFi is providing up to 500MB of free data per day and connecting these users with local advertisers, which helps to subsidize access for these low-income communities who otherwise would not be able to afford to connect.
While big tech companies will continue to be a part of the access equation, continued community and government investment in better-quality access is essential. In fact, we should be growing investment in this area.
I’ve been buoyed to see New York City do exactly this in the past few years. The city’s current broadband initiative seeks to give every resident and business owner “access to affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband service… by 2025.” And the city’s library system is presently running the The Library Hotspot program, which lends wifi access devices to low-income families across the boroughs who don’t have a connection at home.
Mozilla is also trying to do its part, both by working with activist entrepreneurs and by investing directly in community solutions.
Since 2014, we’ve been running the Gigabit Fund—a collaboration with the National Science Foundation and US Ignite—to provide grants between $5,000 and $30,000 to local educators and developers in gigabit cities like Austin, Kansas City, and Chattanooga. These grants go toward high-speed educational and civic applications that increase the value of municipal and community-led access projects.
More recently, we ran the Equal Rating Innovation Challenge to catalyze new thinking and innovation in providing affordable access and cultivating digital literacy. The Challenge sought ideas that connect many while still maintaining an open web—ensuring the newly-connected experience the full diversity of the internet, not just a small collection of apps and services. The Challenge’s overall winner was Gram Marg Solution for Rural Broadband.
Community solutions can fill in a part of the access equation in ways that large scale, for-profit solutions can’t—by addressing local challenges and subtleties.
When this happens, people who previously had limited access discover a much more potent internet. They discover a web they can use and shape to improve all aspects of their lives, from the economic to the social. And we continue to build the internet as a decentralized public resource, by and for its users.
Mark Surman is executive director at Mozilla and writes for Quartz, where this article was originally published.