Although American society has made strides in recent decades toward providing equal opportunity for all, we still have a very long way to go. While civil rights and social sentiments have progressed, economic equality is still far off. In fact, many analysts have noted that the division between rich and poor has been exacerbated. The tools for advancement are not equally accessible, and that adds dramatically to the feelings of futility and disillusionment among the “have-nots”. The "Digital Divide" is emblematic of this chasm as the gap between rich and poor is correlated to who is on-line and who is not, and these days, to who has a broadband connection and who does not.
A high-speed, high-bandwidth connection to the Internet is a critical component of economic development, educational advancement, and simply providing equal access to society. Yet, broadband and wireless connectivity are sporadic in communities which are low-income (especially communities of color or those with high percentages of immigrants), rural, sparsely populated, or just hard to reach. Millions of Americans still only have access through antiquated dial-up connections, which are not enough.
The absence of an advanced connection limits access to interpersonal communications, community affairs, media, commerce, education, and entertainment. Web-based learning programs, e-government services, telemedicine, business services, complex data files, high-resolution graphics, Internet telephony (VOIP), music files, video downloads, and streaming media are just some of the now common uses of the Internet that are unavailable to those with only dial-up.
These uses require a high-speed data connection, often 1 MBps (one mega-byte per second), 10 MBps, and higher. The data speed provided by dial-up connections, which is 56 KBps (56 kilo-bytes per second, or about one-twentieth the speed of a 1 MBps connection) is simply not adequate. It is like drinking water from an eye-dropper while others drink from water bottles. It is like having no connection at all, resulting in a "digital divide" of practical usage.
While most Americans have access to some form of broadband, either through cable, DSL, satellite, or high-speed wireless services, that still leaves millions without. Broadband providers certainly have information about the communities they serve. But they claim not to have information about the communities that remain underserved. Strategies to provide service to them are lacking. The communities that remain underserved will increasingly suffer, as they lack the competitive advantages that economic development requires.
Ideas / Solutions
Government has an important role -- indeed a responsibility -- for filling those holes. In short, what is needed is for collaboration between the state governments and the Federal government to identify the deficiencies through a process akin to a "gap analysis", and then to take action to fill those gaps.
The Federal government has an opportunity to establish a framework and coordinated approach for the use of an Geospatial Information Systems (GIS) application, with which physical features and qualitative data can be applied to maps, to depict the locations of broadband service and the communities being served by them. Then, states, with the assistance and data from their local governments, would use the GIS tools to map the areas being serviced.
Differentiation should be made for broadband of different data rates (e.g., 1 MBps versus 100 MBps), "dark" fiber (i.e., fiber that is not being used versus "lit" fiber which is active), and different types of broadband providers (e.g., cable, DSL, and wireless). Major long-haul backbone lines and local connection points (i.e., "on-ramps" enabling access to the fiber) should both be identified. The maps could identify the communities being served, rather than the precise site of telecom lines, to avoid making them vulnerable to a homeland security threat.
Once the maps are completed, policy analysts and government officials could finally identify the areas that are not receiving service, or are receiving only inadequate service. Once those gaps are identified, strategies can be developed to fill those gaps and cure the deficiencies.
One strategy for filling the gaps would be assignment of locations of service. Each time a broadband provider seeks government approval to serve an additional community, or seeks renewal of a permit to continue their presence in communities which they already serve, the governmental agency could condition its approval on the provider's commitment to extend service to an underserved area. An appropriate ratio might be 20,000 homes of the agency's choosing for every 100,000 homes of the provider's choosing. Multi-family and affordable housing complexes must be provided with the same high level of service and connectivity that is accessible to high-revenue areas (e.g., "fiber to the home"), so as not to perpetuate one of the big Digital Divide differentiators.
Additionally, one local government could collaborate with a neighboring local government into a regional arrangement so that permission to serve one town could be dependent upon extending service to another town. In other cases, where areas are remote or sparsely populated and expensive to serve, incentives could be offered to encourage providers to significantly extend the reach of their services, such as by easier or discounted use of public rights-of-way, e.g., highways and aqueducts. States could take a more active role in the permitting process to transcend the limits of geographical jurisdiction that keeps remote and low-income communities from getting the attention they need and deserve.
These solutions provide a major opportunity for both communities and broadband providers to prosper, through a dose of political alchemy and mutually beneficial public-private partnerships.