Leaders from 32 cities in 19 states this week launched the Next Century Cities coalition to promote next-generation broadband Internet to attract businesses and jobs and to help reduce the digital divide among their residents.
Included in the 32 cities are Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kans., the first Google Fiber sites in the nation to receive Google's 1 Gbps connections, starting in 2012. Even with the flurry of tech activity that has followed Google Fiber in those two cities, neighborhood and nonprofit groups are concerned that fast Internet connections aren't reaching nearly enough of the area's poor residents.
"The digital divide is a much harder issue to deal with than many people realize," said Deb Socia, executive director of Next Century Cities, in a telephone interview Wednesday. "Kansas City is working hard on the problem and I know they are concerned about it, as are many other Next Century Cities."
Google won't say how many customers in the two cities are connected to Google Fiber, although it has announced 7,000 miles of fiber optic cable-related construction there. Despite that robust rollout, a recent independent survey sponsored by the The Wall Street Journal found just 15% of residents in six low-income Kansas City, Mo., neighborhoods had some form of Google Fiber service, compared to 54% of residents in nearby middle- and higher income neighborhoods.
Google's Erica Swanson, head of community impact programs, said in a recent blog that Google and others face a "long-term, complex problem" to address the digital divide, which requires working with local partners over time.
It isn't clear what specific solutions will come out of the new Next Century Cities coalition. In a statement at the launch event in Santa Monica, Calif., on Monday, the group said it will assist cities in developing and deploying next-generation Internet.
"Participating cities will work with each other to learn about what works and what doesn't so that every community has access to information that can help them succeed," the statement read.
In the interview, Socia was full of practical ideas that could come into play. She said cities need programs that are neighborhood-based to offer poorer residents three things: computer hardware, Internet connectivity and "relevance training," the last referring to offering residents "a reason why they need the Internet, why it matters."
In a program that Socia helped run in Boston called Tech Goes Home, she said residents were taught Internet relevance by showing them ways to save money with access to the Internet, including Internet calling to foreign countries. "Since many residents came from foreign countries they can save 30 cents a minute on calls to home, enough to pay for the cost of Internet service," she said.
In the three years running Tech Goes Home in Boston, Socia said 13,000 families were given relevance training and assistance in getting computers and Internet access at a cost of $325 per family. Three months after the training, 90% had Internet access. Tech Goes Home has expanded to Chattanooga, Tenn., she said.
In some cities, Socia said the nonprofit group Mobile Beacon has helped connect other nonprofits, schools and libraries with 4G wireless for $10 a month. Mobile Beacon offers a portable wireless hotspot, about the size of a hockey puck, for $39. The service offers unlimited data to connect to one computer, laptop or tablet at the $10 a month rate. On its home page, Mobile Beacon notes that 62 million Americans still don't have access to the Internet.
When Next Century Cities was first established, some press accounts described it as a group of cities determined to work around restrictive state laws that make it difficult for cities to create their own broadband infrastructure. As such, Next Century Cities has given the appearance of a lobbying group focused on attacking large telecom providers that backed restrictive state laws and haven't worked hard enough to build fast broadband with access to all.
"We are not anti-telecom, we are pro-city," Socia said in response to such concerns. "Our only goal is to expand next-generation broadband. Some cities are working with incumbent telecom providers and some are even working with Google."
She said the Next Century Cities group includes some cities that want next-generation broadband to be defined as affordable or free connections to homes at a minimum 5 Mbps or 10 Mbps, but she added, "a lot of cities are looking at 1 Gig service."
Despite what Socia said, the political fight to get more widespread broadband is undeniable. In a recent blog post, Next Century Cities stated: "Towns and communities struggle with limited budgets, laws that restrict their opportunity to build/support a network that fits their needs and even market pressures ... We are at a crossroads. Too few communities have the Internet infrastructure to deliver on the promise of America. Too few commentators and policymakers recognize that truly next-generation Internet is indispensible in the 21st Century."
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler made a video appearance at the Next Century Cities launch event and has offered support to cities working to promote broadband. Meanwhile, some conservatives aligned with telecom interests in Congress have objected to such federal involvement by the FCC, according to various reports, including one from Motherboard.com.
Given the inherently political nature of the digital divide debate, it is no surprise that Next Century Cities has urged more cities than the original 32 cities to join the cause. "Together, we can help every city become a next century city," the group's blog concludes.
Here is the entire list of 32 inaugural cities and communities in Next Century Cities: Ammon, Idaho, Auburn, Ind., Austin, Tex., Boston, Mass., Centennial, Colo., Champaign, Ill., Chattanooga, Tenn., Clarksville, Tenn., Jackson, Tenn., Kansas City, Kans., Kansas City, Mo., Lafayette, La., Lexington, Ky., Leverett, Mass., Louisville, Ky., Montrose, Colo., Morristown, Tenn., Mount Vernon, Wash., Palo Alto, Calif., Ponca City, Okla., Portland, Ore., Raleigh, N.C., Rockport, Maine, San Antonio, Tex., Sandy, Ore., Santa Cruz County, Calif., Santa Monica, Calif., South Portland, Maine, Urbana, Ill., Westminster, Md., Wilson, N.C., and Winthrop, Minn.