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Access to internet-for-all in C-U is not as utopian as it seems

It’s probably hard for most of us to imagine not having access to the internet at home, but the harsh truth is it is a reality for plenty of families. This pandemic is unlike anything we’ve experienced in the modern era, and we’re left assessing the systemic problems it has exacerbated every day. The taxpayer safety net that some rely on for connectivity — schools and libraries — are closed. So where does that leave a family that needs to have their children participate in school activities but don’t have access? When everything goes virtual, and the resources once available dry up, what is a community to do? We believe it’s time to start thinking about the internet as a utility rather than a commodity to bridge the digital divide between those who have and those who do not.

COVID-19 has made staying connected a real problem for many people. When you can’t afford the internet at home, what options do you have during a pandemic? Even without the COVID-19 pandemic, we can’t help but imagine a community where we all have access to a truly affordable — or dare we suggest it, free — public internet connection.

The telecommunications industry actively works to prevent making the internet a utility, which challenges the creation of a free connection for those who need it. The highly-profitable telecom industry generates hundreds of billions of dollars in total revenue annually. Massive companies like Comcast can profit billions of dollars annually through consolidation, monopolizing most of the bandwidth available to consumers nationwide. Although we can’t immediately change the way the telecommunications industry works (except by voting), we can manage how we function within its limits. 

In 2009, Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband (UC2B) was developed in order to ensure that high-speed gigabit internet was available in Champaign-Urbana, and underserved communities would have access to fast, affordable internet options. These sorts of initiatives make good communities great ones, and over the years, we’ve seen the slow-but-sure growth of gigabit-speed internet throughout our community (whether that’s from i3 Broadband, Volo, Comcast, or elsewhere). These initiatives are important steps that prove C-U values connectivity. Overall, we’d call that a nice start.

After a few phases and acquisitions after iTV-3 was introduced to the market, that company was acquired by i3 Broadband in 2017, which now owns the rights to managing the UC2B network. Although UC2B is a non-profit organization, run by highly-qualified volunteers, in the end, i3 Broadband is a private sector company, so as one might expect, its ability to provide free or discounted services to people who aren’t able to afford a basic connection is limited. We shouldn’t expect private sector companies to provide free services, though if the internet was treated as a utility in C-U, we could create paths to fund services for the community.

UC2B and those who helped create it certainly took the idea of an ultra-connected community and got the ball rolling. When it comes to finding ways to provide people without internet in their homes access to such, UC2B has something that does help alleviate that. Its Community Benefit Fund (now a 501c3 component of UC2B) works to finance a loaner pool of hotspots that you can check out from both Champaign Public Library and Urbana Free Library. By contract, i3 Broadband contributes $50,000 to this fund annually. Though access to hotspots is a good start, nothing makes the general lack of access to the internet more apparent than this situation in Philadelphia, where school leadership suggested students take advantage of hotspots in parking lots to get their coursework completed. This is a disheartening reality for many people. 

It’s not enough to rely on a volunteer-run organization to raise enough money to provide access to everyone who needs it. It just doesn’t cut it, and really isn’t fair to place this responsibility on UC2B as an organization. This should be something operated by local government — ideally the County and its Board — wherein taxpayers help fund it rather than it being something for those who can afford the expense from private companies. 

We have to prioritize internet access as a community and change the way we think about how it affects our daily lives. As discussed a couple of weeks ago, now is the time to start planning our future post-COVID-19, and access to gigabit-speed internet in C-U is a big part of that. We should take access more seriously than we do; it shouldn’t take a pandemic for us to realize that this is one of the most basic necessities that everyone needs to have available to them. 

A community providing internet-for-all is not an idea that is void of problems or obstacles. Building the infrastructure for a fully-functioning, community-wide, basic internet connection seems impossible in a variety of ways (i.e., building a wifi network where a lot of beloved trees are present is a challenge). Even if we can’t build an all-serving network immediately, this is something we should be thinking about now more than ever because it isn’t just a city problem; rural communities face potentially even bigger challenges when it comes to access.

But with the right approach, we can make progress. Bridging the digital divide isn’t just about who is able to consume, it’s also about creating a network that benefits both producers and consumers alike. Hotspots funded by the city are a good starting point, whether they are distributed through libraries or schools, or if they are built and maintained around a city as if they were a streetlight, a pothole, or a sewer drain. Right now, Chattanooga is making hotspots a priority, as they’ve installed and provided 25 locations around the city to ensure that those who need access to the internet during this time can have it. Just last week, we saw the U of I System’s ride shuttles offer free WiFi hotspots in four locations in C-U. That is a great start. But we should make time to strategize on where they need to be placed, how they could be funded through the cities, how they are monitored and secured, and beyond. 

We need to demand that those with access to a lot of bandwidth share it temporarily for the sake of those without, and then be decisive about how to make sure that everyone has access to the internet. Recognizing that when we make technology accessible to everyone, we actually improve it for all that use it. Our whole community will be better if we can bridge the digital divide. This is what a progressive, proactive, and inclusive community looks like.

The Editorial Board is Seth Fein, Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.

Top image by Anna Longworth.

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