We’ve heard and written a lot about smart cities in recent years. They are cities which are hugely interconnected, harnessing technology to improve the lives of those who live in them. But at the same time as smart cities are developing around the globe, there are still cities, even in the US, where not everyone has access to reliable high-speed broadband at all times. A report by the Open Technology Institute on the cost of connectivity found that, a few pioneers aside, most US cities lagged behind their international peers in terms of broadband speed and cost.
A new initiative in the US, Next Century Cities, was therefore launched in October this year. It aims to support cities to develop and introduce high quality next generation broadband services. It will encourage cooperation between cities to help others to learn from the best, and the best to stay great.
A key piece of infrastructure
At the launch event on 20th October, mayors from 32 cities made the point that in this day and age, broadband is as important to a city as roads and water. Gigabit-level internet speeds are vital to the future of the economy, not to mention improving health and education. Next Century Cities aims to remove the obstacles to faster broadband.
The timing of the launch of Next Century Cities is particularly interesting, because it coincides with two cities, Chattanooga in Tennessee and Wilson in North Carolina, appealing to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to declare that federal government has the power to pre-empt state laws that limit municipalities from building up their broadband capacity. Although these laws may sound unnecessarily restrictive, they were designed to prevent government-backed corporations from distorting the market, and ensure that taxpayers were not landed with ‘white elephant’ infrastructure projects. Sweeping them away is not something to do lightly, although critics argue that they have been used by telecoms giants to control the market. As a consequence, many smaller municipalities have ended up with inferior services. The FCC has a difficult decision to make, the ripples from which will probably be felt for many years to come.
The point, perhaps, is that commercial companies won’t necessarily provide the internet infrastructure themselves. The market simply isn’t big enough in small communities. But those communities do require it. And by improving their infrastructure, they can make sure that they become a viable choice of location for all kinds of companies that depend on fast broadband for e-commerce. Joey Durel, Mayor of Lafayette, pointed out in an article co-written with Andy Berke, Mayor of Chattanooga, that it was Lafayette’s own investment in fibre-optic broadband that made it a suitable location for Amazon.
The work of Next Century Cities
Next Century Cities both celebrates success and encourages others to innovate. Perhaps most importantly, it is not focused on a ‘one size fits all’ approach to broadband development. Instead, it had adopted several key principles to guide its work:
- High-speed internet is necessary infrastructure if US cities are to become and remain globally-competitive.
- The internet is non-partisan; it is an essential resource for all. Collaboration can often help to secure better services than competition.
- Communities must be able to determine for themselves what they want and need. Towns and cities should decide for themselves which models works for them.
- High-speed internet development requires the cooperation of the community. There are a lot of stakeholders who need internet access on reasonable terms, and they should all be involved.
- Although cooperation supports progress, so does meaningful competition. A variety of providers with different offerings will ensure that everyone can have the service they want, and also drive innovation.
- Collaboration between communities ensures that they can benefit from others’ experience, and make the best use of resources.
Next Century Cities has also identified some key areas of activity for itself and members. These include joining in the conversation at national level. As pioneers of next generation broadband, many member cities are in the vanguard, and can hugely add to national-level discussions. The initiative will also help to develop and share good practice, tools and resources between its members. The ultimate aim is to support member cities to overcome the challenges of introducing next generation broadband.
United by ambition for their communities
The members of Next Century Cities are united by ambition and by a desire to collaborate. They want all their communities to have access to high speed broadband, to make them competitive in the 21st century. The launch of this initiative is a positive step in that direction.
Image credit: Prompt by Michael Veltman