Imagine a home without running water, electricity or trash removal. Your first thought was probably of a remote, rural area in an emerging economy. You probably envision people just trying to survive with no consideration of how to thrive.
In the United States, “off the grid” homes are extremely rare and almost always a choice. This course was not inevitable; but is largely thanks to FDR’s New Deal. The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 brought power to farms in order to “improve the efficiency of work and the comforts of home.” FDR and Congress knew that without the basic resources available in urban areas our farming communities would be permanently left behind.
The modern version of living in the dark is lack of access to high-speed internet. This time the risk affects urban residents. Denver City Councilman Paul Kashmann says that in the 21st century, the internet is the “portal to the world of information, much as brick-and-mortar libraries were for centuries before that.” Ray Gifford, former Chairman of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, agrees, saying “broadband is a vital part of life in the 21st century. It’s vital for a job, it’s vital for an education.”
Sadly, 20% of Denver households do not have access to a broadband, according to census estimates. The digital divide unfairly impacts communities of color. Our neighbors are at risk of being permanently left behind.
A year ago you might see a single mom parked outside a closed library so her children could access the Internet for schoolwork. In a pandemic, the “homework gap” has left students even further behind. Denver Public Schools and teachers also struggle to support students without access to online learning.
The digital divide impacts career success too. While millions of retail and service jobs are eliminated, adults need Internet access and digital literacy to find and apply for the remaining jobs. Without broadband, these job seekers are less productive than their peers. Black and Latino workers are most likely to face these challenges.
Older and minority citizens also lack access to digital visits to medical and mental health providers. This is exacerbated by the schooling and job challenges already covered.
Kashmann sums up the challenge, “As long as DPS is struggling to get their students connected and our mental health providers are struggling to get their patients connected, we’ve got to do better.”
Here is how we do better: Pass ballot initiative 2H. This measure opts Denver out of Senate Bill 152. The lobbyist-backed SB152 prohibits Colorado municipalities from offering Internet services. Just as everyone in Denver has electricity, water and trash removal, 2H could give everyone “the efficiency of work and the comforts of home.”
Our neighbors have already paved the way. In 2011, Longmont opted out of SB152. Longmont Power & Communications now offers NextLight. More than half Longmont households use NextLight, which has multiple programs to make sure everyone in the community has access. Another route is Centennial, who partnered with Ting to build a “publicly owned network” with a range of broadband speeds and prices.
We cannot leave our neighbors behind. They are vital to Denver being a great city with a vital culture and able workforce. Vote YES on 2H.
Dave Milliken is founder of Denver-based tech company Greetly and a volunteer for the Denver Internet Initiative.