How Digital Equity Is a Driving Force for Some Gigabit Cities

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Connecting state and local government leaders

Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke: “We cannot create gated digital communities.”

ATLANTA — When Michael Mattmiller, the city of Seattle’s chief technology officer, walks by his city’s fire department headquarters on the way to his office, he often sees a large group of local residents clustering outside.

At one point, Mattmiller wondered whether the department was offering some sort of community programming that was particularly successful at getting people to attend on a regular basis. But as he found out, it had something to do with Seattle’s municipal broadband infrastructure.

“That’s where we have one of the strongest Wi-Fi signals in the city,” Mattmiller said on Wednesday during a panel discussion at the Gigabit Cities Live 2015 conference at the Westin Peachtree Center in Atlanta.

In a city like Seattle, which is known for its vibrant tech sector, there are still plenty of residents who have limited access to digital resources. They might have personal technology like a smartphone but might not necessarily have a data plan, Mattmiller noted. So that creates a reliance on publicly accessible Wi-Fi hotspots around the city, like the one that makes the fire department headquarters a huge draw.

“The need is there” for digital infrastructure, Mattmiller said, stressing how Seattle and its municipal leadership have made equitable digital access a driving principle for the city’s broadband strategy.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean the city itself will be getting into the business of providing Internet access for all its residents. But it might do that for some.

The city of Seattle is currently studying whether it should be a municipal broadband provider “to parts of the city that aren’t going to get gigabit connectivity faster” through private sector options, he said.

Mattmiller outlined parts of Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s digital infrastructure strategy, which includes reducing regulatory barriers to encourage private-sector competition and leasing out unused capacity on the city’s municipal fiber network as part of a public-private partnership.

But expanding digital access in an equitable way for all residents has been paramount. Next month, the city is scheduled to finalize its vision and goals for its ongoing Digital Equity Initiative, which aims to help close the digital divide in the city. According to city statistics, 15 percent of Seattle residents lack Internet access at home.

“We need to have equal affordable access for all,” Mattmiller said, stressing that gigabit expansion in Seattle is more than just about economic development for the tech sector.

In his keynote address on Thursday morning, Andy Berke, the mayor of Chattanooga, Tennessee, also stressed the importance of digital equity for his city.

“We cannot create gated digital communities,” the mayor noted. In fact, Chattanooga is known for its municipally-operated 1-gigabit high-speed fiber-optic network, which connects every home and business over 600 square miles in and around the city.

“We want to use our gig network to break down barriers,” Berke said.

The mayor recently announced that low-income families in Chattanooga would be eligible for reduced-rate 100 megabit-per-second Internet access for $26.99 per month through the municipal EPB network.

But Berke said that “[i]t’s not enough that people have access to the Internet.” They have to know how to use it effectively. And civic leaders are working on that.

Through Chattanooga’s Tech Goes Home program, classes are offered to those with limited digital skills, which will “give them the knowledge of how to use the Internet,” the mayor said.

That might mean developing practical skills like paying bills online and setting up an email account.  

“Not everyone has access to these same [digital] tools,” the mayor said, stressing that any successful city will have to figure out ways to connect all its residents as a way to support workforce development and improve quality of life for all.

Michael Grass is Executive Editor at Route Fifty.

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