Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
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During the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, organizations that had not previously focused on digital inclusion work scrambled to help their communities stay connected as school, healthcare, and other services transitioned online.
OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates (OCA) was one of these organizations, and in advocating for the digital access needs of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPIs), found that there was not much data documenting connectivity gaps within these communities. The "model minority" myth, which characterizes AANHPIs as one monolithic group, enjoying “uniform high achievement and high income, [and] relatively untouched by racial and ethnic discrimination,” obscures the digital access gaps in many AANHPI communities and has likely contributed to the dearth of research investigating AANHPI connectivity needs.
OCA Broadband Access and Digital Equity Fellow Yen Jeong told ILSR how difficult it has been to challenge the model minority myth: “Every time we say that our communities need more [digital access] support, everyone says that Asian Americans are digitally already very fluent,” Jeong said, adding that the assumption that many AANHPIs have tech jobs makes it especially difficult for OCA to galvanize support for the AANHPI-focused digital inclusion work.
"It’s been really tough to challenge the narrative."
The assumption that all AANHPIs are connected to the Internet, along with the lack of evidence to break down this assumption, impeded OCA’s efforts to rally support for AANHPIs’ digital access needs, made urgent by the pandemic. Motivated to get all AANHPIs online, OCA launched a major data collection campaign to challenge the model minority narrative and build the foundation for its newest area of advocacy – technology, workforce, and digital inclusion.
OCA’s Entry to Digital Inclusion
This week on the show, Christopher is joined by Senior Researcher Ry Marcattilio for a conversation about on-the-ground work in a rural county in Minnesota. After joining a listening session with local elected officials, the district representative, and the broadband action team, Christopher and Ry hop in the studio to reflect on what they heard. From grant requests that have gotten short-circuited by a local WISP with a history of acting against the public interest, to mapping woes, to resort towns frustrated by underinvestment and fragile telecommunications infrastructure, there are a lot of lessons which are applicable to rural counties facing similar problems all over the country.
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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
The State of Texas is notorious for pitting communities against one another. This time around, it's the little town versus the big city in the funding arena to improve Internet access.
Last week, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar kicked off his Texas Broadband Listening Tour 2022, scheduled to take place at 12 different locations statewide. The goal of his stakeholder listening tour is to collect feedback for Texas' newly created broadband development office and how the state should spend a once-in-a-generation windfall of federal resources to close the digital divide. Great news for a state the size of Texas with 29 million residents, right? It depends on where you live. The majority of the communities hosting a public forum are smaller communities. Remember the Alamo? Not Heger's office. Dallas and Austin made the list of stops, but San Antonio and Houston, with some of the state's highest populations, didn't make the cut for the tour.
Texas has both unserved and underserved communities living on the wrong side of the digital divide. From 8-80 years old, residents and businesses throughout rural, suburban, and urban communities are all harmed by the lack of community broadband infrastructure, unaffordable connectivity services, and digital discrimination.
We applaud the approach of public officials doing listening tours. However, we are deeply concerned that many states - red and blue - will ignore the needs of urban residents while focusing solely on solutions for rural areas. We laid this out more broadly in a policy brief we published last year. We can ensure everyone has high-quality Internet access, but we need to make sure that is the explicit goal.
Five small towns in rural Maine are connecting with one another in a steady grassroots effort to expand broadband access in the Midcoast. After conducting a survey which affirmed the towns’ acute need for better connectivity, a local coalition is navigating state funding and weighing network options.
In Waldo County, a collection of local officials and community volunteers have formed the Southwestern Waldo County Broadband Coalition (SWCBC) to organize efforts to bring broadband to five towns in rural Maine, clustered about 30 miles east of Augusta. Freedom, Liberty, Montville, Palermo and Searsmont combined have only 3,300 houses along 340 miles of road. The need for better Internet access became particularly visible during the pandemic, as local officials tried to convene online for Selectmen’s meetings. Two selectpersons from neighboring towns connected over this shared need for access, and the coalition grew from there.
Today we launch the Digital Health Story Collection, an opportunity for health care providers and health care users to share experiences with or difficulties accessing telehealth care across the country. Share your story and help us tell policymakers why having access to fast, affordable, and reliable Internet service is critical for health and well-being.
As we enter 2022 amid a new wave of Covid-19 infections, we are reminded of the critical necessity for all people to have fast, affordable, and reliable Internet service. Such service makes it possible to work and learn remotely, stay connected with friends and family, access vital public health information, and find employment or housing - all critical for maintaining our physical and mental health. Internet access has also enabled many people to access healthcare remotely through telehealth services, ensuring continuity of care while limiting in-person contact and reducing exposure to the coronavirus.
The pandemic triggered a massive expansion of telehealth, but it’s not available to everyone equally. This is partly because not everyone has broadband Internet access. But it’s also because not everyone has the devices, skills, or level of comfort they need to take advantage of Internet access, even if they have it.
Over 230 communities have applied for National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Broadband Infrastructure Program grants. But community leaders increasingly say they’re facing costly, unnecessary challenges from incumbent broadband providers, who are exploiting unreliable U.S. broadband maps to overstate existing coverage and defend the status quo.
The NTIA’s $288 million grant program - and the looming $42 billion broadband infrastructure investment plan - will help bring affordable broadband to the roughly 20-30 million Americans without broadband, and the 83 million Americans currently living under a broadband monopoly.
In Grafton County, New Hampshire, 39 municipalities are part of a growing list of communities exploring home-grown broadband alternatives. They represent a grassroots movement driven by frustration with market failure that accelerated during the Covid-19 crisis. In response they’ve bonded together to apply for a $26.2 million NTIA grant to improve the region’s substandard broadband.
A Little Something Called Competition
Grafton hopes to use the NTIA funding to provide a middle mile fiber network, making it easier for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to service each municipality and the county’s 90,000 residents. The network will be open access, inviting numerous ISPs to compete over the same shared infrastructure. Studies have repeatedly shown such open access models result in better, cheaper, faster service.
We've been writing for years that the artificial restrictions put on municipalities that keep communities from solving their connectivity needs with locally owned and operated networks are unpopular with the vast majority of Americans, irrespective of political affiliation. Today, 17 states persist in keeping these barriers in place.
A new survey out from Consumer Reports shows just how out of touch such policies are, and we've been remiss in not pointing it out. The survey, which comes from data collected in Chicago in August of 2021, highlights an array of important statistics.
They include the fact that "nearly a quarter of Americans (24 percent) who have a broadband service at their home say it’s difficult to afford their monthly broadband costs," with "a larger percentage of Black, non-Hispanic (32 percent) and Hispanic (33 percent) Americans than white, non Hispanic Americans (21 percent) say[ing] it’s ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ difficult to afford their monthly Internet [access] costs."
The most recent survey also finds that "43 percent of Americans who have broadband service in their household say they are dissatisfied with the value they get for the money," a testament to the circumstances for tens of millions of households stuck in monopoly territory with no viable options.
What about municipal or community-owned broadband?
Three out of four Americans feel that municipal/community broadband should be allowed because it would ensure that broadband access is treated like other vital infrastructure such as highways, bridges, water systems, and electrical grids, allowing all Americans to have equal access to it.
A larger percentage of Democrats (85 percent) than Independents (74 percent) and Republicans (63 percent) say municipal/community broadband should be allowed.
During fire season in Northern California - when the sky often turns dusky with smoke in the middle of the day and the air quality can get so bad that officials declare it unhealthy to be outdoors - access to high-speed Internet connectivity is all-important.
For local governments, fast, reliable, and resilient Internet service is crucial for public safety communications. When flames engulf the region, relaying critical emergency information with speed is paramount. Seconds matter. It’s equally important for citizens to get timely information on the course of wildfires, receive alert notifications or evacuation orders, and be able to connect with friends and family.
Living in that reality is one of the driving reasons the Chico City Council recently voted to earmark $5 million of the city’s $22 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds to research and implement a plan to improve citywide Internet access.
City council members have already authorized spending $250,000 of the funds to develop a Broadband Master Plan in conjunction with EntryPoint Networks. The plan is projected to be completed by October, and once it is finished the City Council will decide where to go from there.
City officials are also in the process of surveying the city’s 115,000 residents to gauge community interest in building a municipally-owned open access fiber network. Responses to the survey so far have indicated residents are excited about the potential of a municipal broadband offering, the city’s Administrative Services Director, Scott Dowell, told ILSR in a recent interview. Dowell said he’s noticed three recurring themes in the survey responses to date: “They want it to be reliable, inexpensive, and fast.”
Although no plans have been finalized and the city is open to various approaches to improve Internet access, Dowell said the city’s lofty goal is to enable symmetrical gigabit Internet service to all premises in Chico for a monthly access fee of no more than $100.
Improving Emergency Communications in the Face of Forest Fires
Jamestown - home to 30,000 residents, the largest population center in western Chautauqua County - could become the first city in the state of New York to construct a citywide municipal fiber network using American Rescue Plan relief funds.
In April, Mayor Eddie Sundquist formed a task force to assess the potential for a municipal fiber network in Jamestown. The city is currently working with EntryPoint Networks on a feasibility study to estimate the overall cost of the project, as well as surveying residential interest in building a municipally owned open access broadband network in Jamestown.
If the city's American Rescue Plan spending plan is approved by the Jamestown City Council, Jamestown will be the first city in New York state to embark on a municipal fiber build. Although many cities across New York state own dark fiber assets, and cooperatives in the southeastern and northern regions of the state are serving some residents, no city in the Empire State has moved forward with building a citywide fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network.
Idea Dating Back to Sundquist’s Mayoral Campaign
Connecting citizens to new technology was a component of Mayor Eddie Sundquist’s 2019 mayoral campaign, centered around efforts to enhance economic development and community revitalization projects.
“Who says that we can’t become a technology hub attracting businesses around the country with our low cost of living and rich resources? Who says we can’t wire broadband and fiber to every home and business in this city at a lower cost?,” WRFA reported Sundquist campaigning in 2019.
In an interview with ILSR, Mayor Sundquist recalled that the message was well-received by Jamestown residents, and that even pre-pandemic, city residents were calling for more reliable Internet access offering higher speeds.
With vaccines rolling out tier by tier, state by state, and restaurants, bars and public spaces starting to reopen one by one, there seems to be a desire to say, “Wow, things are going back to normal!” Unfortunately, the public health crisis exacerbated healthcare, education, and economic inequities that have long existed in low-income and communities of color across the country and have no chance of going away any time soon. But some community leaders have stepped up and come to the table with one piece of the puzzle in bridging these inequities — better Internet access to these communities.
Over the summer, we covered several communities that jumped to action and came up with quick ways to implement long-term solutions.
The city of San Rafael, which sits on the coast of northern California in Marin County, continues to strengthen, expand, and research the use of the network it built over the summer and fall for one unserved area hit hard by the economic, education, and health impact of Covid-19. And on the other side of the country, Meta Mesh in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania continues construction on a pilot project that is hoping to connect unserved families by the end of this summer.
Focusing on the Future
In San Rafael, California, the city, Marin County and a nonprofit organization — the Canal Alliance — all joined forces to bring free Wi-Fi to the Canal neighborhood.