The internet has taken over our lives. Whether that will turn out to be beneficial or harmful (or a combination of both) remains to be seen, but the fact of the matter is that it’s near impossible to conduct any aspect of everyday life without using the internet in some way. We communicate using the internet. We pay our bills over the internet. We consume news and entertainment on the internet. Many of us require the internet to do our jobs. The internet has become woven into the fabric of everyday life, but it has become so commonplace as to seem invisible. We turn on our computers with the assumption that we will be able to access everything we need, without a thought to the infrastructure that allows that to happen. In doing so, we ignore the role that the internet - and access to it - plays in shaping the landscapes around us, particularly with regard to determining the future urban landscape and the cities of tomorrow.
Despite the fact that the internet was technically a military invention, its deployment across the United States has largely become a private initiative, fuelled by companies such as Comcast, Charter, Verizon, and AT&T. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that great swathes of the country lack access to affordable, high-quality and high-speed broadband - and nowhere does this contrast exist more starkly than in cities.
There is a huge disparity between the quality of the internet services that low income and higher income families have access to. In such densely populated areas such as New York City, this disparity becomes even more obvious: the Center for Economic Opportunity estimates that 22 percent of NYC households lack internet service at home. Says New York City Council Member Carlos Menchaca, “The truth is that internet access is not a luxury of the rich, but a necessity of the many”, adding that “low-income residents should not be paying premium prices for this important service.”
Without internet, even relatively straightforward tasks such as applying for a job can become a struggle, given that the majority of job applicants either apply for a job online or use the internet as a resource to help them in their search. This creates a pernicious cycle that perpetuates inequality and makes it difficult for real change to take place.
Not only does lack of internet access hamper the ability of those from low-income backgrounds to live their lives, it also has a significant impact on future innovation and investment. Think about it: If you were a startup looking to grow your business, would you rather set up shop in a small town with slow, intermittent internet access, or in a thriving downtown neighborhood with the latest in high-tech internet infrastructure? It’s not much of a choice when you think about, which just serves to highlight how important high-speed internet is to the future of urban and economic development.
Some cities, like New York, have begun investing in infrastructure, both as a method for reducing inequality and to encourage economic growth and investment. In New York, the goal is for every NYC resident and business to have access to affordable high-speed broadband by 2025. To that end, mayor Bill de Blasio has announced several initiatives aimed at increasing broadband access in lower income neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx and the development of LinkNYC, a program that brings free high-speed broadband access to the streets of New York City.
The past few years have also seen the formation of public-private partnerships whose aim is to narrow the gap between the haves and have-nots. ConnectHomeUSA is one such partnership, working with local governments, community leaders, nonprofits, and private companies to “produce locally-tailored solutions for narrowing the digital divide” for those living in assisted housing. Connect IBZ is another, created with the aim of giving businesses in underserved areas of New York access to high-speed internet.
These initiatives are great first steps, and vitally needed, but they shine a light on a larger issue: the fact there is a fundamental lack of choice when it comes to broadband providers. Most areas will have only one or two carriers per market, which can increase prices for local consumers and de-incentivize growth and innovation. New York has committed itself to making sure that residents have the infrastructure they need to access the internet, but most other cities haven’t yet decided what kind of financial commitment they’re going to make. But at the end of the day, cities that don’t have affordable and scalable broadband infrastructure will find themselves losing out to those that do.