The internet has become a vital part of everyday life, especially for people living in urban areas. In fact, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that access to the internet is a basic human right, much like having access to food, shelter, and clothing.
In the developed world, progressive cities are fast becoming what everyone is calling “smart cities.” Smart cities are the result of urban development through the leveraging of tools like wireless broadband solutions and information technology to improve public services. Initiatives and innovations like eco-solutions, efficient use of resources, and wireless infrastructure make cities more livable each year. Through the ubiquity of internet access, smart cities are learning and adapting quickly to optimize resources while providing the best-customized solutions for the public.
While the growth of internet penetration worldwide had steadily increased to more than 900% from 2000 to 2016, there’s still a wide gaping hole—a global digital divide. According to research done by the Wireless Broadband Alliance, 57% of the urban population of the world is still untethered to the web. Surprisingly, 37% of these urbanites live in the world’s richest cities. And while most of these unconnected populations can be found mainly in the Middle East and Asia, even Europe and North America still has ways to go in terms of ensuring connectivity for all.
Role of Governments
Elected officials, especially in the local sector, have the power to provide equal opportunity for their constituents. They have to make sure that everyone, from the richest to the most marginalized individual, has access to the internet, an essential tool in the economic and social lives of people.
Moreover, the continuous evolution of the internet has gone beyond just empowering the citizenry. Access to the internet can provide the governments of smart cities with relevant insights gathered from the “big data,” which can then be used to design regulations and policies geared towards improving the lives of their citizens and driving their cities’ growth.
Bridging the digital divide, therefore, is critical to prevent the marginalized sectors from being left out of the equation. They need representation, and they need to be visible for the government to get the full picture and not just what’s easy to see.
Private Sector Partnership
In order to realize the goal of 100% connectivity for all, there needs to be cooperation between the private and public sectors of society. Governments alone would not be able to keep up with the demand, and building various infrastructures from the ground up can sometimes cost taxpayers more than they bargained for.
In Seattle, for example, a commissioned study ordered by the mayor resulted in findings that it would cost $480 to $665 million to provide a citywide broadband network. The cost is much too high for the city to be feasible. But with 15% of low-income households untethered, the city needs to find a solution to bridge the gap. Today, with the help of private enterprises including telecommunications companies, Seattle hopes to expand the reach of the internet to areas where cost of connectivity is prohibitive for residents.
Conversely, in New York City, the government recently launched a project called LinkNYC. These are multifunctional standalone kiosks that allow users free online phone services, charging stations, and hotspots. Even subway stations have joined the Wi-Fi revolution by providing commuters with free internet access. This is especially great for tourists who want to wander around the city without getting lost.
Finally, there’s Chicago. More associated with gang violence than being a smart city, this Midwest metropolis is determined and motivated to become the next digital hub. The launch of its Digital Excellence Initiative features grassroots community effort to provide internet access for the underserved communities in the city. With the help of non-profit foundations, the city hopes to expand internet access and provide better opportunities for its people.
There’s still a long way to go before the global digital gap is closed, but there’s also a lot that governments, the private sector, and communities can do to achieve this goal. It is through a lot of cooperation between these sectors that smart cities are born.