Bridging the Digital Divide in Gigabit Cities

Denise Linn conducted this research as an MPP Candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is currently a Program Analyst at the Smart Chicago Collaborative.

With the rise of coalitions like Next Century Cities and Gig.U and the development of groundbreaking networks in cities like Chattanooga and Kansas City, the buzz surrounding gigabit Internet speeds has swelled in the US. Cities are working closely with companies like Google Fiber or even building out fiber-optic infrastructure themselves. The suggested rewards of these investments include stronger local economies, vibrant tech startup scenes, progress in distance learning, telemedicine, research—and the list goes on.

But when superfast gigabit speeds are available in a city, what does that mean for people beyond tech entrepreneurs and other heavy Internet users? How can cities make sure that technological innovation lifts up the lives of every resident? This all leads to the ultimate question I examined in my recent research: What does the availability of high speed Internet mean for the digital divide?

Unpacking public data can shed some insight on this important issue. The 2013 American Community Survey’s tract and city-level demographic data merged with the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband subscribership data tell us a complex story about what faster speeds do to digital inclusion in metro areas. Though on the surface, both normal cities and gigabit cities do not appear to differ greatly in terms of overall broadband adoption, the data show that there is significant interaction between poverty and gigabit infrastructure. In other words, the presence of gigabit infrastructure has a significant correlation with higher connectivity in lower-income neighborhoods. Poorer cities and poorer census tracts are predicted to fare better when there is gigabit availability.

Why is this? There are a few possible explanations:

  1. Increased competition: It’s possible that faster speeds spur competition, lower prices, and make at-home broadband subscriptions possible for more people.
  2. Greater awareness of why the Internet is important: According to Pew, the number one barrier for broadband adoption in the home is lack of awareness or understanding of how the Internet is relevant to everyday activities. It’s possible that the community organizing process required to build gigabit networks engages low-income neighborhoods and heightens awareness of why the Internet is important throughout a city.
  3. Empowered anchor institutions in low-income areas: Within gigabit cities, anchor institutions—community-based organizations and libraries—deliver critical services to help get people online. In my research I saw interesting outliers—namely, very poor census tracts that were walkable and had easy access to public amenities or programs saw higher rates of Internet connectivity. For example, Hamilton County’s census tract 20 in Chattanooga, TN is both dense and is home to four churches and Howard High School. In 2013, 46% of households in this tract were living in poverty, but over 80% subscribed to broadband service.

The data analysis also points to weaknesses in high-speed Internet cities: broadband adoption in concentrated populations of non-English speakers and communities with low educational attainment. Interestingly, these residents are predicted to be worse off in gigabit cities. This observation points to what many might already suspect—that the relevancy and skill barriers to broadband adoption cannot be solved by faster speeds alone.

Fortunately, cities can understand and take ownership over their own digital divides, whether they are gigabit cities or aspiring gigabit cities. The public sector has a major role to play in digital inclusion. For example, cities can hire a digital inclusion specialist to work full time on the issue or create a grants program for local nonprofits. It’s clear that city governments can set the tone for broadband adoption. You can see my recommended digital inclusion actions for city governments here.

The National League of Cities, in partnership with Next Century Cities and Google Fiber, is conducting a webinar on August 6th to provide practical steps and specific case examples for city governments seeking to heighten their work in this area. Also, cities with great programs or programming ideas will have the opportunity to win a first-ever Digital Inclusion Leadership Award and share their success stories at the NLC conference in November.

To learn more about digital inclusion and dive deeper into the subjects covered in this post, see A Data-Driven Digital Inclusion Strategy for Gigabit Cities, or the summary here. Continua a leggere

Data shows what millions knew: the Internet was really slow!

Meredith Whittaker is Open Source Research Lead at Google.

For much of 2013 and 2014, accessing major content and services was nearly impossible for millions of US Internet users. That sounds like a big deal, right? It is. But it’s also hard to document. Users complained, the press reported disputes between Netflix and Comcast, but the scope and extent of the problem wasn’t understood until late 2014.

This is thanks in large part to M-Lab, a broad collaboration of academic and industry researchers committed to openly and empirically measuring global Internet performance. Using a massive archive of open data, M-Lab researchers uncovered interconnection problems between Internet service providers (ISPs) that resulted in nationwide performance slowdowns. Their published report, ISP Interconnection and its Impact on Consumer Internet Performance, lays out the data.

To back up a moment—interconnection sounds complicated. It’s not. Interconnection is the means by which different networks connect to each other. This connection allows you to access online content and services hosted anywhere, not just content and services hosted by a single access provider (think AOL in the 1990’s vs today’s Internet). By definition, the Inter-net wouldn’t exist without interconnection.

Interconnection points are the places where Internet traffic crosses from one network to another. Uncongested interconnection points are critical to a healthy, open Internet. Put another way, it doesn’t matter how wide the road is on either side—if the bridge is too narrow, traffic will be slow.

M-Lab data and research exposed just such slowdowns. Let’s take a look…

The chart above shows download throughput data, collected by M-Lab in NYC between Feb 2013 and Sept 2014. The reflects traffic between customers of Time Warner Cable, Verizon, and Comcast—major ISPs—and an M-Lab server hosted on Cogent’s network. Cogent is a major transit ISP and many content and services are hosted on Cogent’s network and on similar transit networks. Traffic between people and the content they want to access has to move through an interconnection point between their ISP (TWC, Comcast, and Verizon, in this case) and Cogent. What we see here, then, is severe degradation of download throughput between these ISPs and Cogent that lasted for about a year. During this time, customers of these three ISPs attempting to access anything hosted on Cogent in NYC were subjected to severely slowed Internet performance.

But maybe things are just slow, no?

Here you see download throughput in NYC during the same time period, for the same three ISPs (plus Cablevision). The difference: here they are accessing an M-Lab server hosted on Internap’s network (another transit ISP). In this case, in the same region, for the same general population of users, during the same time, download throughput was stable. Content and services accessed on Internap’s network performed just fine.

Couldn’t this just be Cogent’s problem? Another good question…

Here we return to Cogent. This graph spans the same time period, in NYC, looking again at download throughput across a Cogent interconnection point. The difference? We’re looking at traffic to customers of the ISP Cablevision.

Comparing these three graphs, we see M-Lab data exposing problems that aren’t specific to one ISP or ISPs, but a problem with the relationship between pairs of ISPs—in this example, Cogent when paired with Time Warner, Comcast, or Verizon. This relationship manifests, technically, as interconnection.

These graphs focus on NYC but M-Lab saw similar patterns across the US as researchers examined performance trends across pairs of ISPs nationwide—e.g., whenever Comcast interconnected with Cogent. The research shows that the scope and scale of interconnection-related performance issues were nationwide and continued for over a year. IT also shows that these issues were not strictly technical in nature. In many cases, the same patterns of performance degradation existed across the US wherever a given pair of ISPs interconnected. This rules out a regional technical problem and instead points to business disputes as the cause of congestion.

M-Lab research shows that when interconnection goes bad, it’s not theoretical: it interferes with real people trying to do critical things. Good data and careful research helped to quantify the real, human impact of what had been relegated to technical discussion lists and sidebars in long policy documents. More focus on open data projects like M-Lab could help quantify the human impact across myriad issues, moving us from a hypothetical to a real and actionable understanding of how to draft better policies.

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Data on the changing role of libraries in the digital age

Derek Slater is a policy manager at Google.

Ten years ago, the U.S. Congress looked at Internet access in libraries as “no more than a technological extension of the book stack.” In fact, the Supreme Court cited this statement in the United States v. American Library Association decision, upholding government regulations requiring that, as a condition of funding for Internet access in the library, libraries must install content filtering software. The Court asserted that “A public library does not acquire Internet terminals in order … for Web publishers to express themselves.”

Ten years later, data suggests otherwise. A recent survey from the Pew Research Center shows that today Internet access plays a much bigger role in libraries. Over a quarter of Americans say they get Internet access at libraries, with “African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely than whites to access the internet at their local library, as are parents of minor children, those under age 50, those living in households earning less than $30,000, and those with at least some college experience.” What’s more, a Gates Foundation report finds that “people use library computers to perform both life-changing and routine tasks,” both in discovering information and as a means of expression. For example, over a half-million Americans used library computers to start a local club or nonprofit group.

What impact has Congress’ initial judgment and policy had as technology use has changed? It’s clear that all filtering tools are overbroad and block some lawful speech, but we’re not aware of any studies analyzing what the economic and social impact of filtering has been. As Congress and states look at how to support libraries in a time of shrinking government budgets, this empirical question is worth tackling.

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