Jun 26, 2020

If the internet was a utility, could more cities provide it?

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Chattanooga rolled out citywide fiber a decade ago, which has become an economic driver.

In this country, internet access comes from companies. And in many states, those companies have lobbied for laws that prevent cities from building their own infrastructure to provide internet access. But some cities have.

EPB is an electric and telecommunications utility in Chattanooga, Tennessee. A decade ago, it laid fiber to every business and home in the city to prevent power outages and offer internet access to everyone. As part of our series, “The Internet Is Everything,” I spoke with Katie Espeseth, the vice president of new products for EPB. She says that internet access is a utility. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Katie Espeseth (Photo courtesy of Espeseth)

Katie Espeseth: We think it’s the newest utility, actually. We think that cities and communities that have access to this type of infrastructure will grow and thrive, similar to the way communities did when they were able to have electricity brought to their areas. I think those communities who have access to these types of services will be the ones that show the real economic growth for everyone in the community, not just for a few.

Molly Wood: But it isn’t necessarily available to everyone, though? Is access to the Chattanooga grid subsidized for everybody?

Espeseth: As far as subsidization, we do have a program available for families who are eligible for a free and reduced lunch program.

Wood: Got it. When you say “available,” it’s not available for anyone to use for free?

Espeseth: That’s correct, and while the infrastructure is capital-intensive to actually build, by charging a fair price, a competitive price, and offering more value, we found a way to make it available to everyone.

Wood: Is there a model that could go further, in terms of closing the digital divide? It sounds like you have some low-income access plans.

Espeseth: When we were hit by the pandemic, just like every other community in the country, because we had the fiber-optic network already in place, we could mobilize additional resources very quickly. Within the first month of the pandemic, we stood up about 125 hot spots across our 600-square-mile area. We worked with the Hamilton County School District to identify where those homes might be where people did not have internet service or did not subscribe to our internet service. And we saw immediate response, over 10,000 sessions, of people taking advantage of those free and open hot spots. We’re still partnering with several other community partners, foundations and with the school district themselves to try to develop a long-term solution.

Wood: Do you think you’ll leave those hot spots up indefinitely?

Espeseth: I would say we probably will, but I think we will not stop at that. I think we’ll find a long-term solution to make broadband access affordable for everyone in our community.

Wood: There’s been, of course, like a lot of conversation about closing the digital divide and about extending last-mile infrastructure in rural areas. Chattanooga is the fourth-largest city in Tennessee, so not tiny. Do you think this model would work to help connect rural parts of the country or parts that just haven’t been invested in?

Espeseth: Our model actually is completely community-based and really drew on the strength of our community and the grassroots support. I think every community is different in that respect. But we do agree that every community in the country needs access desperately to high-speed internet. There could be different ways to do that in every community, but in most cases, it’ll be that local effort that really brings it to everyone, including the rural areas. 

Wood: Do you think that this pandemic has really — the pandemic combined, I think, with conversations about racial and economic inequality in this country — do you think that that has only made this need more obvious? 

Espeseth: Absolutely. I agree with you 100%. We were able to mobilize fairly quickly to get folks moving and working at home and remaining productive, but certainly what I think it has done is brought to the surface those situations where people do not have access or have affordable access to high-speed internet. Not only is it just for distance learning, but when you think about how you apply for benefits or you receive health care, it absolutely points out the need that this is a utility, or this is an essential service for everyone.

(Photo courtesy of EPB)

Related interview: More insight from a listener

One last story from you, our listeners. This one comes from New Orleans law student Pippy Veron. She says she can’t afford to pay for the internet, and that when the pandemic started it created a challenge for how to participate in her classes remotely.

“[My school] originally would just email us about the food bank if we couldn’t afford food because obviously we didn’t have our part-time jobs after school. They never emailed us about Wi-Fi stuff. They emailed us if we didn’t have a computer. That’s the only thing they would email us about. ‘If you don’t have a computer, let us know.’ So I was like, well, I have a computer. I’m in law school, and I have enough money for food, thank God. I emailed some of my professors and said, ‘Hey, I cannot attend any of the live classes. Can you please make sure that you post the recording online so that I can watch it whenever I get a chance to get to Wi-Fi?’ All professors couldn’t understand how a law student couldn’t have Wi-Fi. Apparently, I was the first person to say anything to them. 

“I will drive to an acquaintance’s house, get on their Wi-Fi — not go inside — get outside of my car, get on her Wi-Fi and download all the videos I need to watch, and then I’ll have them on my lap to get back to my house and watch them. 

“It’s silly to think that everyone has Wi-Fi. It’s really, really expensive. It’s free when you go to school or when you go to Starbucks or when you go to the public library. I’m never going to pay for Wi-Fi in my house. I think it’s an excessive thing. I am in debt. I’m in law school, so spending $60 a month on Wi-Fi — I don’t have the money for that. I knew I would just make it work.”

Also watching:

When Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web more than three decades ago, he intended for it to be accessible for all. Now more than half of the world is online, but the percentage of income that internet access takes up — that is, how much people spend for access — varies dramatically depending on where you are in the world.  

Adrian Lovett is the CEO and president of the World Wide Web Foundation, which Berners-Lee co-founded. He says the COVID-19 crisis makes clear how much we all desperately need the internet, but the affordability gap is still huge.   

“At the Web Foundation, we’ve coined this idea of an affordability target. We call it 1 for 2, where one gigabyte of data should cost no more than 2% of average monthly income in any particular country. If you are in Africa, then you are probably about five times higher than that threshold at the moment. So you’re paying something like 10% of average monthly income, rather than 2%, on getting connected.”

In the Web Foundation’s latest survey of 99 low- and middle-income countries, only 31 reached the 2% target. People in high-income countries typically pay less than 1%. 

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer