Net Neutrality is an Urban Issue Too

We tend to think of the internet as a placeless space–an experiential reality that transcends geography in connecting people and information globally. However, the internet is really a place (warning: somewhat crude humor). And, apologies to Mr. Chappelle, it’s a real rather than a metaphorical place in the sense that its traffic is handled by servers and transmission facilities that occupy space on the earth. The internet is also a place in the extent that its usage varies among human beings occupying space on the earth. More to the point, places are (or are not) on the internet to the extent that their populations use (or don’t) the internet. The digital divide is a geographical divide as well as a social one. As the Pew Center for Research reports, rural areas have disproportionate numbers of people who don’t use the Internet. In the aggregate, urban and suburban areas have the same proportion of non-users, about 14%. However, this aggregation ignores the tremendous socioeconomic variation within cities and among diverse suburbs. Consider another risk factor for the digital divide: wealth.

If you have a college degree or live in a high income household, you’re much more likely to use the internet. Only 4% of college graduates do not use the internet compared with 41% of those without a high school degree. And only 4% of those with a household income of $75,000 or more don’t go online, versus 24% of those earning less than $30,000 per year.

These differences suggest that there are many suburbs and urban neighborhoods where Internet usage is virtually 100%, and many where it is very low. Further, statistics about internet usage obscure something more important: members of minority groups and low-income internet users are much more likely to use the internet in facilities like public libraries.

Which is why today’s decision by the FCC to regulate the Internet as a public utility is so significant. Most people rightly argue that Net Neutrality is important for the free flow of ideas, without restriction by network providers. But the decision also took a stand that truly recognizes that the internet is a public utility like drinking water or roads. Denial of access to that utility equals a denial of full participation in the society. It affects individuals and it affects communities that incur the costs of that denial on a social level.

Carl Smith’s wonderful book City Water, City Life made the point quite elegantly that part of the political movement to create public waterworks in American cities was the recognition by elites that they bore the cost (materially and physically from disease, and aesthetically from “filth”) that accrued when the public lacked access to clean water.

If cities bear the human capital and employment costs of the digital divide, why shouldn’t they likewise act to provide broadband access to their residents? Per Rebecca Ruiz and Steve Lohr at the Times:

Also at the Thursday meeting, the F.C.C. approved an order to pre-empt state laws that limit the build-out of municipal broadband Internet services. The order focuses on laws in two states, North Carolina and Tennessee, but it would create a policy framework for other states. About 21 states, by the F.C.C.’s count, have laws that restrict the activities of community broadband services.

Here, you can see where municipalities have acted to create public broadband, and where they have been preempted from doing so by state legislation, frequently aided by the templates helpfully provided by the American Legislative Exchange Council.

This interference with municipal power to provide needed utilities is nothing new. It’s been a recurrent response to cities asserting broader powers in order to provide for their residents’ needs. Want to know more? Gerald Frug’s book City Making: Building Communities Without Building Walls is a pretty good place to start, and his discussion of the idea that limits on city power have served as limits on the ability of particular classes of city residents (minorities, the poor, immigrants) to make claims on public resources leads to an interesting discussion of the legal architecture of spatial injustice in metropolitan areas. Though, if you want something more recent, Frug and fellow law professor David Barron have produced City Bound: How States Stifle Urban Innovation. Looks like I’ll have to read it now, particularly since it addresses Atlanta’s relationship to the State of Georgia, a particular interest of mine.

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