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Cities hope to boost broadband with new coalition

Matt Hamblen | Oct. 23, 2014
32 inaugural cities in Next Century Cities group.


Credit: flickr/photosteve 101

Leaders from 32 cities in 19 states this week launched the Next Century Cities coalition to promote next-generation broadband Internet to attract businesses and jobs and to help reduce the digital divide among their residents.

Included in the 32 cities are Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kans., the first Google Fiber sites in the nation to receive Google's 1 Gbps connections, starting in 2012. Even with the flurry of tech activity that has followed Google Fiber in those two cities, neighborhood and nonprofit groups are concerned that fast Internet connections aren't reaching nearly enough of the area's poor residents.

"The digital divide is a much harder issue to deal with than many people realize," said Deb Socia, executive director of Next Century Cities, in a telephone interview Wednesday. "Kansas City is working hard on the problem and I know they are concerned about it, as are many other Next Century Cities."

Google won't say how many customers in the two cities are connected to Google Fiber, although it has announced 7,000 miles of fiber optic cable-related construction there. Despite that robust rollout, a recent independent survey sponsored by the The Wall Street Journal found just 15% of residents in six low-income Kansas City, Mo., neighborhoods had some form of Google Fiber service, compared to 54% of residents in nearby middle- and higher income neighborhoods.

Google's Erica Swanson, head of community impact programs, said in a recent blog that Google and others face a "long-term, complex problem" to address the digital divide, which requires working with local partners over time.

It isn't clear what specific solutions will come out of the new Next Century Cities coalition. In a statement at the launch event in Santa Monica, Calif., on Monday, the group said it will assist cities in developing and deploying next-generation Internet.

"Participating cities will work with each other to learn about what works and what doesn't so that every community has access to information that can help them succeed," the statement read.

In the interview, Socia was full of practical ideas that could come into play. She said cities need programs that are neighborhood-based to offer poorer residents three things: computer hardware, Internet connectivity and "relevance training," the last referring to offering residents "a reason why they need the Internet, why it matters."

In a program that Socia helped run in Boston called Tech Goes Home, she said residents were taught Internet relevance by showing them ways to save money with access to the Internet, including Internet calling to foreign countries. "Since many residents came from foreign countries they can save 30 cents a minute on calls to home, enough to pay for the cost of Internet service," she said.

 

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