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Internet Advocates Want Equal Affordable Access in America

National Digital Inclusion Alliance session with (L to R) Susan Crawford, Bobby Coulter, Elizabeth Lindsey, and Angela Siefer. (Mark Urycki/ideastream)

Internet activists are gathering in Cleveland this week for a conference about getting better internet access to more people.  The National Digital Inclusion Alliance wants to reduce the inequity in broadband connections for people in rural areas or poor urban neighborhoods.   

Cleveland ranks as one of the worst cities in the country for neighborhood access to high-speed internet, according to a Federal Reserve Bank study.  Cleveland Public Library Director Felton Thomas has seen that for himself while driving by library branches at night.

“And I see young people outside the libraries with their phones or their laptops working on homework at 11 o’clock at night, midnight, you know because the library is the only place they have access." 

Harvard Law Professor Susan Crawford says America needs to treat high-speed internet as a utility like electricity or water,  as other countries do.

“It is embarrassing to have a Korean tell me that coming to America is like taking a rural vacation because life is so slow here.  It is embarrassing for the mayor of Stockholm, the mayor said to me 'What can I do to help America?' ” 

Susan Crawfordthe John A. Reilly Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, author of Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age (Mark Urycki/ideastream)

Crawford hopes cities will step up and either regulate internet providers or build their own fiber optic systems. She called for “raising a ruckus” and making broadband an election issue.

Bill Callahan might agree.  He’s the president of the Cleveland non-profit Connect Your Community and the author of a study looking at the lack of high speed internet access in poor neighborhoods. He calls it digital “red-lining” for low income people.

Callahan believes the solution will be the city government becoming a provider.

“At some point if you don’t have a regulatory handle on the problem, the only thing they public and community sector can do is say ‘Ok we’ll do it ourselves.’  And that is going on in 100 cities across the country.”

Bill Callahan of Connect Your Community has a map of Cleveland neighborhoods with and without availability of high speed internet. (Mark Urycki/ideastream)

Callahan predicts Cleveland could build out a fiber network for $30 million dollars, less than it cost to renovate Public Square.

He cited the Old Brooklyn neighborhood as a good start because councilman Kevin Kelley spent his Ward 13 allocation building a free outdoor wi-fi network for the neighborhood,