We need better infrastructure to bridge urban digital divide

City bridgeThe broadband stimulus program committed nearly $500 million to narrow the digital divide through broadband adoption campaigns and building computing centers in low-income areas. After distributing much of this money in 2011, these investments should start bearing fruit. But will they?
Their success faces two challenges: a lack of sufficient broadband infrastructure in some low-income areas and broadband adoption efforts that miss the mark because policymakers don’t understand what leads to success. Fortunately, these issues can be addressed. Once we accept that success depends on how we spend that stimulus funding and what stakeholders expect (hope) to achieve.
A recent Forbes article illustrates the challenge we have when well-intentioned people don’t fully understand a particular market or that market’s broadband needs. Back in December, Forbes’ columnist Gene Marks told the world how he’d handle life and technology “If I Was a Poor Black Kid.” Quite a national backlash erupted.
Forgetting for a minute the tone of the piece (which was grating not just to those of us from the ‘hood), blood pressures spiked too because Marks assumed several things about a poor urban kid’s access to technology that are not true. If policymakers and others in positions of influence who read Forbes carry similar assumptions, good luck trying to bridge that divide. Poor kids of every color will lose out.

Better infrastructure is Job 1

Too many folks take as gospel that a good marketing campaign will increase broadband adoption in low-income communities. Use just the right spin, price point or magazine column, and poor folks will flock to the digital promise land.
An in-depth qualitative survey report commissioned by the FCC and released in 2010 by the Social Science Research Council reveals that lack of relevancy is not an issue, “even among respondents with profound histories of marginalization. No one needed to be convinced of the importance of Internet use or of the value of broadband adoption in the home.”
Poor kids in Philadelphia take little comfort in Marks’ advice when they can’t buy Internet access above DSL speed even if they can afford it. Brigitte Daniel, EVP of Philadelphia private cable provider Wilco Electronic Systems, Inc. applied for stimulus funding for infrastructure because at least 10,000 low-income residences fit into this category. Service providers can’t make a business case for building highspeed networks in those neighborhoods. “Philadelphia isn’t the only urban city facing this dilemma,” she says. “I’ve spoken with providers in other cities who have documented similar issues.”
Internet service may be advertised as available citywide in large metro areas. However, there’s no financial incentive to build infrastructure where ROI prospects are poor.  Furthermore, when infrastructure there deteriorates or becomes obsolete, potential ROI is too low to justify upgrading. Computing centers are as great as the infrastructure that supports them.
Leonard Salcido is Senior Art Director for Change Agent Productions, located in one of Long Beach, CA’s poorest neighborhoods. They teach inner city kids digital media skills, plus provide consulting services to clients. They rely on 3 Mbps over bonded T1 lines. Even though Verizon’s central office is only a block away and Leonard’s organization is a $400,000 enterprise, after multiple attempts they still can’t get Verizon to sell them the same FiOs service Verizon offers Long Beach’s more affluent neighborhoods.
Parents in 10 million families work for wages so low they are still poor. Subsequently they likely have to pay more to get less broadband, which often means they get no broadband. A survey of the Washington, DC area released in 2011 by American University revealed that low income neighborhoods paid three times more ($31.17 per megabit/second) than wealthy neighborhoods ($9.58 per megabit per second). These findings are similar to a Department of Commerce national survey report.
Libraries are key to adoption. However, 76 percent of economic development professionals recently surveyed said broadband’s main impact on individuals’ economic development comes through facilitating home-based businesses, reaching higher education levels and improving job skills. Spend time in libraries in a few communities (which I’ve done), and you discover there can be too few workstations, not enough bandwidth and not enough branches open at times when many kids and most working parents could pursue these goals. Urban city libraries need the same direct link to fiber that rural libraries are receiving via broadband stimulus funds.

This way out

Perhaps Marks could write a piece titled “If I Were President/Governor/Congressman..” and offer sage advice on how to unite the government and private sectors to replicate Washington, DC’s good gigabit fortune in other urban areas, as Kansas City is doing with Google. Then thousands of poor kids could plug their computers into Net connections fast enough to access those wonderful free Web sites Marks recommends. Libraries could become better digital resources.
Also tell us how as an elected leader  you would overcome critics of every attempt to close the divide because they fervently believe poor people are lazy, undeserving or some other insidious stereotype. Is this easy?  No it’s not.  It’s hard. Let me suggest a follow-up column. “If I were in a position of influence, I’d learn about organizations such as the Long Beach YMCA Youth Institute and challenge critics to replicate their success in other cities.”
Each year 200 low-income high school, 300 middle school and 2000 elementary school kids receive the Institute’s hands-on long-term training that builds business-level proficiency in a range of digital media skills. Students become technology instructors, print publication editors and producers of original movie and music while in school, paid interns upon leaving school and for some, managers and staff at the Institute. The Institute’s Change Agent Productions provides a range of online digital media consulting services to clients around the country.
Together, both organizations require a minimum 20 Mbps Internet connections to operate with average productivity, bandwidth currently beyond their reach. With access to a network such as Washington, DC just launched they could train more kids, service more clients and turn more lives around. The network could sustain dozens of similar high-bandwidth operations. Thousands of students could access and manage those multimedia capabilities from their homes. Some could start Web-based home businesses.
Critics blinded by stereotypes only see broadband in low-income neighborhoods as “my tax dollars supporting poor people wasting time.” These communities’ stakeholders see a digital engine to tech-driven economic self-reliance. The smart money should be on economic self reliance.
Craig Settles is a broadband industry analyst and consultant who helps organizations develop effective broadband strategies. Listen to his radio show (Gigabit Nation) and follow him on Twitter (@cjsettles) or via his blog.
Image courtesy of Flickr user See-ming Lee ??? SML.