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Three Ways Cities Can Close the Digital Divide Through Stimulus Spending
One of the lasting legacies of the COVID-19 pandemic will likely be how the digital divide was laid bare. Once lockdowns were initiated, inequitable internet access made remote work and distance learning exceedingly difficult for some, typically those already disadvantaged in other ways. Cities and schools scrambled to make connections available and keep some sense of economic normalcy.
With the release of a bipartisan infrastructure framework in late June 2021, US congressional leaders acknowledged the importance of closing the digital divide. The framework dedicates $65 billion to ensure “reliable, highspeed internet” for every US citizen. Governments around the world have acknowledged the importance of closing the digital divide by including funding in their infrastructure recovery plans, and several options smart cities have used provide a roadmap.
The first front for closing the digital divide is ensuring every home and business has a wired internet connection. Cable-based internet is typically the most reliable but also the costliest to install. Because of this, telecommunications companies may be reluctant to connect structures in certain areas. This presents an opportunity for the government stimulus spending on digital infrastructure that has been a part of smart city efforts around the world. Guidehouse Insights currently tracks cable-based broadband expansion efforts as part of smart city plans in all regions of the world, including in Adelaide in Australia, Johannesburg in South Africa, and Baguio City in the Philippines.
One of the more popular stopgap measures for getting workers and students online during the pandemic was the distribution of mobile hotspots, which grant internet access through mobile broadband networks. South Carolina, among many other places, took this approach for its students. Communities worked through libraries and school systems, along with help from some telecoms companies, to distribute nodes to families in need. Other cities invested in expanded public Wi-Fi networks, and some school districts parked Wi-Fi equipped buses in low income neighborhoods to help get students online. This method for closing the digital divide is less expensive to deploy, and stimulus funds could go further than in cable-based internet solutions. However, reliability and bandwidth can be a concern, especially in an era when meetings and classes rely on video streaming.
With the high profile launch of SpaceX’s StarLink internet satellite constellation, cities are gaining access to another tool for closing the digital divide. Along with roughly a dozen other satellite constellations, these interconnected orbital systems aim to provide broadband-speed internet anywhere in the world and could help reduce the infrastructure barriers to individual access. As with mobile broadband hotspots, these satellites still require the purchase of some reception hardware, but it’s a cost that could be shouldered through stimulus funding. What’s more, these systems could be used anywhere in the world, allowing those in developing regions further access to digital tools for personal, education, and business needs. Although these constellation-type projects are still in development and still overcoming cost concerns, there is significant potential to close the digital divide in both urban and rural areas.
The pandemic made it clear just how important a reliable internet connection is to the operation of our cities. Lack of access is a significant resilience liability that can hamper educational efforts and become a drag on economic systems. Many countries have outlined plans to improve connectivity in their pandemic economic recovery plans. Such funding will prove to be a foundation for stronger, more resilient, and smarter cities when the next shock comes.