High-speed Internet access can bring new industries, reinvigorate rural communities, and provide educational opportunities. We know the importance of high-speed Internet, and no one should be left behind because of the cost of service. In December, 44 city leaders joined together through Next Century Cities to push for reform of a national connectivity program called “Lifeline”- among them was Mayor Jennifer Roberts.
In February on NextCity.org, Mayor Roberts of Charlotte, North Carolina, wrote that it’s the duty of local leaders to advocate for an end to the digital divide.
Charlotte is known for its banking industry and the growing financial technology sector, but Charlotte’s small businesses are pushing innovation in the local economy. Google recognized the community's small business culture when it bestowed an “eCity” award on Charlotte based on the strong online presence of local small enterprise.
While some sectors of the economy prosper, others flounder trying to compete. Without affordable, high-speed Internet access, there’s a major impact on every aspect of a small business. In a previous story, Catharine Rice of CLIC-NC explained how small businesses need high-speed uploads in order to do business and stay competitive. Mayor Roberts described the stark reality of the digital divide:
“The lack of Internet access can also stymie potential small businesses by cutting off the resources needed for research and development as well as hamstringing sales and marketing efforts that are often conducted after hours and on weekends. With customer connectivity being king in the Internet age, far too many small businesses, particularly ones owned by women and minorities, struggle to make the connections necessary for success.”
Access, But No Service
Mayor Roberts highlighted how community leaders must not only empower business leaders of today, but also those of tomorrow. She detailed some of her plan to address the homework gap - students without adequate Internet access trying to get by in increasingly digital learning environments.
According to WBTV, about 70,000 students in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District do not have a computer with Internet service at home. Many families explained that the cost was too expensive. The FCC 2016 Broadband Report noted that everyone in Mecklenburg County (of which Charlotte is the seat) should have access to high-speed Internet options. The report suggests it’s not the lack of Internet access, but lack of affordability, that is holding these children and communities back.
Local Leaders Must Take the Lead
Mayor Roberts joined the letter to the FCC on modernizing its Lifeline connectivity program for low-income folks, yet she still recognized that national programs can only do so much. City leaders must empower their communities in seeking local solutions to the digital divide.
She touched on Google Fiber coming to Charlotte, but only to emphasize the importance of local leadership:
“We also have to continue pursuing public-private partnerships with companies like Google, which plans to build out fiber connections in Charlotte, and make sure that new offerings don’t just reinforce existing inequities.”
Municipal networks, such as in Salisbury and Wilson, North Carolina, are inherently accountable to their communities, but public-private partnerships can also benefit local communities (for example, see Westminster). As Mayor Roberts noted, however, these partnerships must include local leadership to ensure that these projects serve the whole community.
Mayor Roberts ended her piece on NextCity.org with this charge to other mayors and city councils:
“As municipal leaders, it is our responsibility to ensure that the promise of technology reaches all corners of our cities.”
FCC Modernizes Lifeline Program
The FCC seemed to agree, acknowledging the problems of the digital divide that kept low-income folks from reliable Internet access. In a 3-2 vote at the end of March, the FCC approved measures to modernize the Lifeline program to subsidize Internet access for low-income households. In doing so, the FCC recognized the concerns that the many city leaders, including Mayor Roberts, had highlighted in their Next Century Cities letter.
Affordable, high-speed Internet access is crucial for 21st century communities, and, as Mayor Roberts carefully laid out in her NextCity.org piece, local leadership is necessary to advance solutions.