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Connecting the disconnected

Connecting the disconnected

In an era where connectivity seems virtually ubiquitous, far too many urbanites are still ‘disconnected’ from the internet. It’s a big problem for cities. But the City of LA is proving it’s not unsolvable.

Can you imagine your life without the internet? Not everyone around you – just you. How would that lack of connectivity disadvantage you? You certainly wouldn’t have equal access to city services, information, ideas or news. You would probably struggle to find a job, a new home or a life partner. And you’d likely spend a lot more time traveling to and from banks, stores and service providers. I would guess you would probably feel pretty isolated, disadvantaged and uninformed.

That is how millions of people in cities around the world feel today. And not just in the informal settlements of the developing world, but in every city and in every country. Even a city as technologically advanced and progressive as Los Angeles, California. “You’d like to think connectivity is ubiquitous, but that’s not true in the developing world and it’s not true here in Los Angeles,” noted Jeanne Holm, Senior Technology Advisor to the Mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti.

The City of Los Angeles recognizes that a lack of connectivity can be a significant burden for some members of society. “This is about giving people the ability to access the information, knowledge and data they need to make more informed decisions every day. It's about making sure everyone has the same opportunities and the same potential for privilege no matter where they live in the city or how much they earn,” Jeanne added.

Equalizing access

Perhaps not surprisingly, affordability is one of the key causes of ‘dis-connectivity’ in urban areas. Even with rising levels of competition between telecom companies, there are still some segments of society that simply cannot afford the ‘basic packages’ offered by the commercial players. And that’s where the City of Los Angeles is starting to think differently about how they can influence the situation.

 “It’s really an opportunity to think more creatively about the assets we own as a city – whether those are intellectual assets or physical assets – and consider how we can use them to help solve the root causes that underpin this challenge,” suggested Jeanne. “We can’t force private companies to lower their rates. But what we can do is use our physical built environment – like the more than 220,000 streetlights we have in the city – to help providers build business models that will lead to improved digital equity within the city.”

 As telecom operators look to roll out new technologies and services (Verizon recently announced that LA would be one of the first cities in the US to get a 5G network[1]), ensuring equitable access is of key concern for the City. “We actually have a clause in our contract with telecom operators that says we will permit these types of build-outs only if the development is done equitably. You can’t just roll 5G out in Bel-Air and Brentwood without also rolling it out in places like Watts and South Central,” Jeanne added. “Companies like Verizon have been amazing partners in that regard.”

A holistic approach

The City also takes a very hands-on approach to addressing the affordability challenge. Internet-enabled devices and Wi-Fi hot spots can be checked out of any of the City’s 73 public libraries. Hot spots have been installed in areas with higher homeless populations like Skid Row and Watts. Old computers are refurbished locally (giving young people a chance to develop new technical skills) and then packaged up with an internet plan, access to a help desk and some basic internet education and given to lower-income residents.  

Yet even when affordable plans are available, there are still a number of challenges that can stop people from accessing the level of connectivity required to properly participate in society. Basic topography is one; depending on which carrier you subscribe to, you may encounter ‘dead zones’ within a city. Basic computer skills is another; there are segments of the population that either don’t understand or don’t trust the internet.

Often, it’s the less-technical issues that create the biggest challenges. “There are more than 220 languages spoken in the City of Los Angeles and that means that people – even highly educated people – can become disconnected from the knowledge and information they need to live in a city,” noted Jeanne. “It’s not just about having a device and having access to the internet, it’s also about knowing what to do when you get online and being able to understand what you find there.”

A global imperative

As the former Evangelist for the Open Data Initiative for the White House, leader for the African Open Data for the World Bank, and Chief Knowledge Architect at NASA, Jeanne has also spent significant time working to improve connectivity on a global scale. And she sees interesting parallels and lessons in her work in places like Africa.

“A woman in Africa has the same need for connectivity as a woman in LA – she wants health information, she wants to find education for her children, she needs weather information and maybe even access to microfinance,” she noted. “But there has also been massive innovation in places like Africa – beamed satellite data, drone balloons and so on – that could one day make fiber irrelevant in the developing world. The lessons for developed cities like LA could be invaluable.”

Over her career, Jeanne has advised a wide range of government leaders and policy makers on issues of connectivity. And, in her experience, leadership at the highest levels is key to ensuring that no citizens are ‘left behind’ in the shift to digitization. “It’s really our Mayor and our CIO that have been driving this forward by bringing people together around the issue, helping them understand the root causes, listening to the people impacted and then creating and articulating a vision that everyone can really rally around. It takes leadership to make sure that these people aren’t forgotten in our rush forward.”

Ultimately, Jeanne sees her effort to improve connectivity in LA and around the world as a way of strengthening societies. “The stronger we can make our weakest citizen, the stronger we will be as a city and the better off we will be as a society.”

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