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Reclaiming the Internet’s Utopian Potential in an Unlikely Place


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In Logic magazine, Evan Malmgren profiles an innovative public infrastructure project in an unlikely place: Chattanooga, Tennessee, a “Rust Belt” town in a staunchly conservative part of the US. In 2010, the Chattanooga city government unveiled Gig, a publicly owned fiber optic broadband network that has since become one of the fastest, most reliable, and most affordable internet providers in the country. As Malmgren writes, this network has helped overcome the city’s digital divide—differential access to the internet based on income and neighborhood, which tends to reinforce social inequalities. Gig shows what kind of social change can be spurred when internet access is thought of not as a privilege or market commodity, but as a basic right. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

In many of Cleveland’s poorest census blocks, for example, one survey recently found that AT&T only offered downstream speeds of three Mbps or less. (The lowest rates on offer from the EPB are more than thirty times faster.) Rather than a simple binary division between those who can get online and those who can’t, the digital divide operates as a tiered gradient, where quality and ease of access are unevenly distributed.

In practical terms, this means that low-income residents are often required to pay full price for an internet connection that can barely load a modern web page. For this reason, Angela Siefer of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) tells me, “access to affordable broadband is not just a rural issue, but an urban issue as well.”

As demonstrated by Chattanooga’s [municipally owned fiber-optic network] Gig, one way to address that issue is by handing internet service off to public utilities, which are bound to serve the public good rather than profit-hungry shareholders. But accessible infrastructure alone isn’t enough. For people to take advantage of affordable broadband, they also need a base level of technical literacy, as well as an understanding of what they can do with the internet. Together, these are the building blocks of “digital equity,” a condition that the National Digital Inclusion Alliance defines as one in which “all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy and economy.”

Image of Chattanooga, Tennessee via livability.com.