Universal citywide Wi-Fi access

Thomas Ahart | Superintendent, Des Moines Public Schools

The Idea: The internet should no longer be considered a luxury, but rather a public utility. We should provide reliable, affordable access to high-speed internet to all parts of our community.

We need to rethink our city’s public utility infrastructure. Water, sewer, gas, electricity? Of course. Landline telephone service? Probably. But what about high-speed internet?

The “how” is not a question that I am fully qualified to answer; but if there is the collective will, the “how” is relatively easily accomplished. The “why” is compelling and, if undertaken, would provide a valuable new dimension to an already outstandingly vibrant and progressive Des Moines metro economic and educational environment.

There are parts of our metro where high-speed internet access is not readily and reliably available; many in our community cannot afford it even when it is. The so-called digital divide is feeding the widening socioeconomic gap between those who have real access and those who do not.

With concentrated poverty in Des Moines’ urban core, many families (and their school-aged children) do not have access to the many opportunities that high-speed internet connectivity provides. Without this access, adults do not have the ability to work from home or efficiently access the employment market; students do not have equitable opportunity to extend their engaged academic time to maintain and accelerate academic progress and, for the very young ones, to become school ready.

The internet should no longer be considered a luxury. The internet is playing a key role in virtually every aspect of our lives, especially in business and education. It is time for us to reframe how and where we can all access it.

As the Louisville, Ken., chief of civic innovation, Grace Simrall, told Wired magazine, “At this point, who would go to a city that doesn’t have electric utilities? Who would go to a city that doesn’t have water or access to highways? Fiber is that type of infrastructure plan.”

The Des Moines metro, and especially the urban core, has tremendous untapped social and economic potential that, if unleashed, could accelerate progress in virtually all measures of community social and economic health.

From improved access to mental health services to expanded educational options; from at-home employment opportunities to improved social connectivity; from a more competitive environment for small business startups and entrepreneurs to reliable connectivity for our growing international residents and businesses.

Universally available and affordable internet access is a glaringly missing piece of our city’s infrastructure. And a piece that, if found, would keep us in the myriad top 10 lists for which we’re justifiably proud. In this post-net-neutrality environment, it is even more pressing to address this challenge now.

There have been a number of successful efforts to address this challenge: Chattanooga, Tenn., and Santa Monica, Calif., have tried different approaches, and there are dozens of others around the country. More than 130 communities, including Lafayette, La., and Newark, N.J., have publicly owned networks offering at least 1 gigabit service. There are 55 municipal networks around the country serving 108 communities with citywide fiber networks.

Whether our approach is creating a municipal, publicly owned utility or creating solutions with existing internet service providers, we have a tremendous opportunity to up our entire community’s game by tackling this challenge to provide equitable, reliable access to high-speed internet for the entire community. >