A former student of mine shared an interesting article about Google’s efforts to build high-speed Internet infrastructure in Kansas City. The focus of the article is the difficulty Google is having getting traditionally disadvantaged parts of town to sign up for even deeply discounted Internet service. Kansas City, like I suspect Milwaukee, has a deep digital divide. According to the New York Times almost fifty percent of African-Americans in Kansas City do not use the Internet. Logic suggests a lack of easy access, and the cost of broadband, is a reason why.
This story got me thinking about Milwaukee Magazine’s recent article listing 21 ideas to change Milwaukee. Right there at number two is “Build a Wired City.” The article quotes a local CEO who says easy public access to the Internet should be “…part of the infrastructure of any world-class city.” I agree, and go even further and say that providing widespread (if not universal) Internet access is an appropriate responsibility for government.
In a way, government already does this. Through libraries and schools it is quite easy for just about anyone, with a little bit of effort, to have access to high-speed Internet. But should state and local governments in Wisconsin be doing more? After all, what is high-speed today may not be high-speed tomorrow. Chattanooga, TN, for example, made a massive investment (using substantial federal stimulus dollars) to build a government-run network with capacity far beyond the current needs of businesses and individuals. It is a gamble, but one that may make the city more attractive in the long run.
I am admittedly very pro-infrastructure and think that having the state government take a greater role in increasing the speed and reach of broadband in Wisconsin bodes well for long term job growth. The state does have a “Playbook for Broadband Progress” that at the very least recognizes and articulates the important of building the state’s digital infrastructure. However, the playbook is part of the LinkWISCONSIN initiative, which is funded by federal stimulus dollars that will not last forever.
Probably more controversially, I think some sort of program that gives low-income residents free or subsidized access to high-speed Internet in their residence is in the public interest. The scope of activities that require the Internet has reached a point where lack of convenient access puts people at a significant disadvantage when it comes to employment, government services, and the building of social capital. More abstractly, as news and commentary migrates to the Internet those without access are likely to become increasingly disengaged with civic life.
Hopefully the efforts of LinkWISCONSIN will prove fruitful and encourage public investment in Wisconsin’s digital infrastructure even after federal funds dry up. Connectivity is an increasingly important quality-of-life issue; a little investment can go a long way towards attracting businesses and human talent to Wisconsin.