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Municipal Broadband: Urban Savior Or Gentrification’s Wrecking Ball?

While municipal-broadband initiatives and digital-friendly promotional campaigns project a narrative of progressive growth, the repercussions for disenfranchised communities often go overlooked.

Municipal Broadband: Urban Savior Or Gentrification’s Wrecking Ball?
Chattanooga, Tennessee [Photo: gnagel/iStock]

Capital & Main is an award-winning publication that reports from California on economic, political, and social issues.

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In March, Los Angeles City Council member Paul Krekorian introduced a motion to study the feasibility of municipal broadband, citing the increasing indispensability of internet access in daily life. Los Angeles would not be the first city to do so; eyeing the precedents set in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which implemented a high-speed municipal broadband program in 2010, local governments elsewhere in California, Colorado, Kentucky, and other states have initiated their own efforts, buttressed by popular support.

The case for city-operated broadband is compelling. It offers comparatively fast service: Chattanooga’s broadband runs up to 10 gigabits per second, whereas traditional providers such as Comcast and Verizon claim to offer a maximum of two gigabits or nearly one gigabit, respectively (and deceptively). It’s celebrated as a means by which to preserve net neutrality, which prevents internet service providers from altering the speeds and availability of individual websites. It also has the potential to liberate communities from ISPs’ notorious monopolistic control of regional billing inflation, and denial of service to rural and low-income communities—a phenomenon popularly termed the “digital divide.”

Furthermore, municipalities often tout broadband alternatives as a means of “economic development,” an expression typically denoting the process of attracting businesses and, by theoretical extension, creating jobs. Fast, reliable internet connections, the logic goes, are appealing to companies—particularly tech startups that rely on consistent broadband access in their daily operations and seek environs cheaper than West Coast metropolises. Chattanooga has exemplified this selling point. As of 2015, the city had reportedly generated $865 million over a four-year period by “cutting power outages, improving data connections, lowering power bills and attracting businesses to the self-described ‘Gig City'”; Mayor Andy Berke, meanwhile, has cited its fiber-optic infrastructure as a fundamental part of his city’s nascent tech economy.

Yet, while cities’ broadband initiatives and digital-friendly promotional campaigns project a narrative of progressive growth, the repercussions for disenfranchised communities often go overlooked.

Chattanooga has remodeled its downtown Innovation District, a locus of coffee shops and office space for the largely white, middle-class constituency of the tech-centric “knowledge economy.” Mimicking Silicon Valley’s tech centers, this area has aggravated displacement of low-income communities. As of 2012, downtown Chattanooga’s ZIP code was found to have the fastest rate of gentrification in the nation; between 2000 and 2010, more than 500 white residents moved in, displacing nearly 1,000 African-American residents. The situation has since worsened.

Ken Chilton, an associate professor of public administration at Tennessee State University, told Capital & Main that Chattanooga has “done a lot in terms of funding a place that would be attractive to what Richard Florida used to call the “creative class”: that kind of young, tech, hipster persona. That was intentional.” He added, “The broadband [initiative] kind of magnified that, once they figured out how to monetize it.” Chilton estimates that, since then, 4,000 to 5,000 white residents have moved into neighborhoods in or near the downtown area, such as Jefferson Heights and Southside, while roughly 5,000 to 6,000 African-American residents have left.

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The numbers may be even greater. “We’ve had [approximately] 7,000 people come into the area in the past four years,” added Michael Gilliland, board chair of the community-organizing nonprofit Chattanooga Organized for Action. “A lot of this is a combination of tech professionals, higher-income earners, as well as empty-nesters.”

Media outlets—and the city itself—portray Chattanooga as a progressive, burgeoning hub of innovation, a once-scrappy postindustrial municipality transformed by its novel broadband program and corresponding downtown revitalization. However, “You’re only seeing a small sliver of what Chattanooga actually is,” Gilliland said. “That sort of shiny facade is really hiding a lot of inequality in the city.”

Who gets to be a “smart” citizen?

Chattanooga isn’t alone. Among cities entertaining nontraditional broadband projects and fostering local tech industries, Columbus, Ohio has gained significant attention. In addition to contracting with a private broadband consultancy firm in 2015 in an effort to become the next “gigabit city,” Columbus won the U.S. Department of Transportation’s 2016 “Smart Cities Challenge,” vowing to outfit more vehicles and city resources with internet connectivity, putatively, to benefit low-income neighborhoods. Meanwhile, corporate tech publications rank it among America’s top tech-job locations, while former Silicon Valley venture capitalist and Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance recently relocated there, pledging to invest in startups in Columbus and the broader Midwest.

As in Chattanooga, the image Columbus projects—a new beacon of enterprise with relatively low costs for developers and business owners—neglects a considerable portion of the existing population. “The city has an idea of what they consider to be a ‘smart’ citizen,” said Columbus tenants-rights organizer Bernard Hayman. “When they construct these plans, it’s based around one kind of demographic—white, male, early twenties, early thirties, with a certain kind of background, certain kind of income, and a certain kind of aspiration.”

This environment is increasingly evident. As is the case in most major cities, Columbus suffers from a housing-affordability crisis: As property values have risen 50 percent in neighborhoods like Franklin Park over the last handful of years, luxury housing is rendering low-income public housing scarce. More uniquely, Columbus is home to a longstanding infant-mortality crisis disproportionately affecting poor, African-American communities; in the neighborhood of South Linden, the rate is four times the national average.

Aware of many of the problems afflicting its poorest residents, Columbus’ local government claims it will leverage its Smart City capabilities to address them. Columbus City Council president pro tem Michael Stinziano cited the Smart Columbus Operating System and multimodal trip-planning and common-payment system as examples “geared towards connecting neighborhoods and residents.” Stinziano also alluded to the city’s prenatal trip assistance program, wherein expectant mothers in underserved communities may have access to subsidized “Uber-like” ride-sharing services for transportation to medical facilities. (The initiative has garnered skepticism from urban-planning and reproductive-justice experts.)

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More powers of surveillance and control

Among some residents’ concerns of cities’ unfurling strategic tech initiatives is another issue: government and police surveillance. As part of its broadband program, Columbus boasts improved mobile connectivity among police stations, as well as the transmission of video from cameras that monitor specific neighborhoods—developments for a city that, in recent years, has been home to the highest rates of fatal police violence against African-Americans among major U.S. cities. (Stinziano told Capital & Main the camera installation was driven by citizen feedback.)

“If we’re giving police even more powers of surveillance and control than they already have, where’s the accountability for that?” asked Hayman. “How are we going to make this function in a way that’s not going to . . . make people feel even more surveilled?”

Columbus and Chattanooga officials concede that economic and racial disparity pervades their cities. In an email, Chattanooga’s Berke noted that “We are fully aware . . . that we have a responsibility to make sure this best-in-class, municipally owned internet infrastructure benefits all Chattanoogans, including low-income households and older citizens.” Berke mentioned Tech Goes Home Chattanooga, a program that offers digital training and assists low-income residents with obtaining access to low-cost home internet.

Still, community activists are skeptical that digital training and access alone, even if they’re purported to broaden job opportunities and address transportation and health-care issues, will suffice to improve the quality of life of its most vulnerable residents. Tennessee, for example, has a historically high concentration of low-wage workers, many of whom work in tourism and hospitality, as well as service industries offering little to no job security, benefits or upward mobility.

“The coattails on tech jobs aren’t like they used to be in the industrial economy, where large industries would come in and 800 jobs would be created in a factory,” said Chilton. “The old factory job that might have been 40 hours a week, with some benefits, has been replaced by an accommodation job that might be 24 to 26 hours a week and no benefits.”

Furthermore, while Chattanooga and other cities courting the middle-class tech labor force offer programs to train workers and “recruit candidates in underrepresented communities,” Hayman cautions that the financial promise of work available to them may not be as high as suggested. “A lot of cities, and Columbus among them, look to coding as the next [way] that everyone can be an affluent tech worker, and if you gain these skills . . . then you have an entry into that industry,” he said. “The flip side of this is that coding is not necessarily the most affluent tech job. It’s becoming a rote, blue-collar kind of job, to where you’re not going to make a lot of money. It’s not going to catapult you into the next income bracket.”

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Access to alternative broadband is a boon to cities, but Gilliland and Hayman agree that technological progress alone isn’t a societal panacea. Rather, meeting all residents’ material needs, they contend, requires a multi-pronged effort that entails investments in housing, education and other resources necessary to all members of the community. “The public aspect has to extend beyond…just the gig,” Gilliland said. “There has to be an increased investment across the board if this is going to become an equitable model. You have to be very purposeful about the attempt to lift all boats.”

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