Good Ideas for Cities: Expanding Broadband Infrastructure and Internet Access

By Pablo Aquiles-Sanchez | Research Analyst  Mayors Innovation Project

High-speed internet is a necessity in everyday life for all Americans, yet many across the country lack access to affordable, reliable internet service. Less than fifty percent of Americans have access to fiber-optic broadband, the fastest and most reliable form of connection. For many communities, especially in rural and low-income areas, the expansion of broadband is an issue of equity. High-speed internet access is needed to engage in the economy, to support public health and safety, and support education at all levels, among other things. 

City governments across the country have been taking innovative measures to more equitably expand broadband infrastructure even before the announcement of the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program. With the introduction of approximately $42 billion to states for the expansion of broadband access and affordability, the BEAD program has a particular focus on underserved areas. Though BEAD money is allocated to states, there are important steps cities and local leaders can take to prepare to most effectively leverage the new federal funds. 

Historically, mayors have had few tools to work with regarding broadband. Now, with new federal resources coming in and the increased usage of reliable data and mapping tools, local leaders can become more effective communicators for equitable broadband access. 

Community Broadband refers to locally-owned and operated internet services, either by the municipality itself or a cooperative. Cities like Chattanooga, TN and Lafayette, LA have among the most expansive Community Broadband networks in the country. Both localities are recognized as having some of the fastest internet speeds in the country, and in the case of Chattanooga, have resulted in creating 5,200 new jobs due to business attraction. Community Broadband networks, because of their proximity to communities, are attentive to equity and local economic needs, and are therefore well-equipped to leverage BEAD money coming in from the state. Unfortunately, 16 states have legal barriers that discourage or prevent the establishment of Community Broadband networks – but cities like Chattanooga and Lafayette are examples of municipalities that have overcome state barriers to establishing Community Broadband. 

In 2020, West Des Moines, IA, a suburb of Des Moines, entered an open access infrastructure partnership with Google Fiber, where the city builds the fiber conduit network on its own and Google connects its fiber lines to every home and business in the city. Since the city is building the conduit line, it can lease the space to other internet providers who can feed their own fiber lines into the conduit. The project, which cost around $60 million, is funded through a municipal bond, which is expected to be paid off through fees from the internet providers using the conduit. 

Bloomington, IN has been working on a comprehensive Fiber Initiative which brings together a partnership between the city and the internet providers Hoosier Networks and GigabitNow, as well as public infrastructure developer Meridiam. Included in the broader Fiber Initiative is the Digital Equity Initiative, which seeks to reduce costs for low-income Bloomington residents by applying a subsidy from the federal Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) subsidy, as well as matching eligibility with residents who live in low-income housing or are enrolled in programs such as SNAP, Free and Reduced Meals, etc. 

Oakland, CA recently partnered with a local non-profit to create a grant program called Town Link, aimed at providing financial support to 10 local organizations working on increasing internet literacy and providing access to affordable broadband plans and computers in communities that have lacked internet access. Apart from the work of infrastructure and expansion, training and resource awareness is another important step in addressing the “digital divide” in communities. 

New federal funding coupled with increasing recognition of broadband as an equity issue means that cities are in an exciting position to bring widespread internet access to all communities, regardless of geography or income level. To learn more on how to get started on considerations for your community’s broadband needs, check out these resources below:


Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash