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There are better ways to close the digital divide

Dallas leaders look to build their own fiber network using $82 million in taxpayer dollars in a city with no shortage of broadband options. They are moving forward with this plan despite the city having a 98% coverage rate of 5G wireless service.

The city has recently consulted on a plan to make Dallas a “smart city,” with wireless internet access everywhere within its borders.

“This is so exciting,” council member Jaynie Schultz said at a presentation of the study at a recent Transportation and Infrastructure Committee meeting, NBC 5 reported. “And I think it’s the beginning in many ways of a really huge amount of data and important changes for our city.”

The report says there is an internet divide between the more well-to-do north and lower-income south sides of the city that was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic when students and workers were forced to stay home. That’s primarily why the city is putting WiFi devices on the top of streetlights being installed in the Red Cloud neighborhood in Southeast Dallas.

“To me, it’s about equity and access to opportunity for all. Everyone should be able to reach their full potential and have access to resources as folks in other parts of the city,” said City Councilman Jaime Resendez, who grew up in the area.

A presentation of the city’s Broadband & Digital Equity Strategic Plan in August 2021 notes that AT&T and Charter “serve almost all premises, but gaps persist.”

The website Broadband Now that tracks internet coverage across the U.S. shows 100% coverage from Charter’s Spectrum and 91.3% coverage from AT&T, although presumably some residences fall through the cracks.

But thanks largely due to the plethora of federal taxpayer dollars flying around, Dallas is thinking significantly bigger than connecting a few neighborhoods. Axios notes that Dallas leaders have been identifying construction projects that could qualify for some of that money. The state is set to receive about $35 billion of the $1.2 trillion in funding in the infrastructure bill and Dallas will likely use some of that money for a fiber network and to upgrade the city’s existing network to reduce cyber threats. More federal dollars will be available through other programs passed by Congress to help bridge the digital divide, including Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment and Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds.

The positive sentiment among Dallas City Council members of the digital equity study and the recent presentation point to a likely request for proposals for a partner to construct a middle-mile fiber network and assist with the wireless network deployment.

Much like cities such as Detroit, the leaders of Dallas seem to be using the very small minority of residents who lack broadband as an excuse to build a costly city-wide taxpayer-funded network that may end up not being profitable.

The presentation points out multiple reasons why the digital divide exists in Dallas that could be solved much more cheaply than building a potential $82 million network. This includes cost of service/equipment and a need for more education regarding available internet services.

A survey from the City of Dallas and Dallas Independent School District from December 2020 cited in the report found that students and residents struggle with the affordability of computers. Many cities have started programs to subsidize the cost of laptops or wireless “hot spot” devices to help close this gap. That survey notes that “almost all respondents have internet access.”

The presentation to the city also noted that low-cost programs from AT&T and Charter (funded by various federal subsidies) and the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program are greatly underutilized. The report says that only 1% of residents get internet subsidies through Lifeline and only 3% of residents are enrolled in Charter Spectrum’s Internet Assist program. In fact, 58% of residents aren’t even aware of the Charter broadband subsidy. It would seem from these statistics that better education of residents about their subsidy options could close much of the digital divide in Dallas.

Jeffrey Westling, director of technology and innovation policy for the American Action Forum, told the Taxpayers Protection Alliance that Dallas, the national headquarters of AT&T, is hardly a city that needs subsidized competition. He said the best method of helping the unserved isn’t by building a new network from scratch.

“The best way of doing it is giving those folks vouchers,” he said. “That spurs more innovation and competition.”

What doesn’t spur innovation and competition is spending $82 million on a wasteful government internet network that duplicates the existing efforts of private providers. The better bet is to either provide subsidies to individuals who lack access or help ISPs build out their existing infrastructure to connect the few Dallas residents on the wrong side of the digital divide.

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Autor(en)/Author(s): Johnny Kampis

Quelle/Source: The Dallas Morning News, 22.05.2022

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