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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.

In the three years running Tech Goes Home in Boston, Socia said 13,000 families were given relevance training and assistance in getting computers and Internet access at a cost of $325 per family. Three months after the training, 90% had Internet access. Tech Goes Home has expanded to Chattanooga, Tenn., she said.

In some cities, Socia said the nonprofit group Mobile Beacon has helped connect other nonprofits, schools and libraries with 4G wireless for $10 a month. Mobile Beacon offers a portable wireless hotspot, about the size of a hockey puck, for $39. The service offers unlimited data to connect to one computer, laptop or tablet at the $10 a month rate. On its home page, Mobile Beacon notes that 62 million Americans still don't have access to the Internet.

When Next Century Cities was first established, some press accounts described it as a group of cities determined to work around restrictive state laws that make it difficult for cities to create their own broadband infrastructure. As such, Next Century Cities has given the appearance of a lobbying group focused on attacking large telecom providers that backed restrictive state laws and haven't worked hard enough to build fast broadband with access to all.

"We are not anti-telecom, we are pro-city," Socia said in response to such concerns. "Our only goal is to expand next-generation broadband. Some cities are working with incumbent telecom providers and some are even working with Google."

She said the Next Century Cities group includes some cities that want next-generation broadband to be defined as affordable or free connections to homes at a minimum 5 Mbps or 10 Mbps, but she added, "a lot of cities are looking at 1 Gig service."

Despite what Socia said, the political fight to get more widespread broadband is undeniable. In a recent blog post, Next Century Cities stated: "Towns and communities struggle with limited budgets, laws that restrict their opportunity to build/support a network that fits their needs and even market pressures ... We are at a crossroads. Too few communities have the Internet infrastructure to deliver on the promise of America. Too few commentators and policymakers recognize that truly next-generation Internet is indispensible in the 21st Century."

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler made a video appearance at the Next Century Cities launch event and has offered support to cities working to promote broadband. Meanwhile, some conservatives aligned with telecom interests in Congress have objected to such federal involvement by the FCC, according to various reports, including one from Motherboard.com.

Given the inherently political nature of the digital divide debate, it is no surprise that Next Century Cities has urged more cities than the original 32 cities to join the cause. "Together, we can help every city become a next century city," the group's blog concludes.

 

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