Digital Cities: The Internet and the Geography of Opportunity

Digital Cities: The Internet and the Geography of Opportunity

Digital Cities: The Internet and the Geography of Opportunity

Digital Cities: The Internet and the Geography of Opportunity


The United Nations has declared access to the Internet a human right, and the United States holds universal high-speed broadband as a national goal, yet federal policy has largely ignored the disparate levels of broadband availability in urban areas. Presenting new data on broadband access and use in the nation's fifty largest cities and urban neighbor-hoods, Digital Cities shows the disproportionate impact that lack of home Internet has on the economic, social and political life of the urban poor. It highlights the strategic position of cities for addressing innovation and social inequality in our digital future.


Google created a frenzy by announcing that by the end of 2010 it would select “one or more” cities for a lightning-fast fiber-optic network with speeds of up to one gigabyte— nearly 75 times faster than current average broadband speeds in the United States. Before the late March 2010 deadline for applications, the mayor of Duluth, Minnesota waded through an ice-strewn shoreline and plunged into the frigid waters of Lake Superior to draw attention to his city’s bid. Not to be outdone, the mayor of Topeka issued a proclamation changing the city’s official name to Google, Kansas—at least for the month of March (Helft 2010). Over 1,000 other cities frantically posted YouTube videos and recruited Facebook fans in an effort to show public support for their projects (Steketee Greiner and Co. 2010; Settles 2011). In March 2011, Google chose Kansas City, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri, for its experiment with super-fast broadband (Settles 2011).

The circuslike atmosphere surrounding the Google competition distracted from a serious message underlying the theatrics—new technology matters to cities, but local governments have limited resources to address technology needs on their own. Beyond Google, broadband policy in the United States is at a historical crossroad, with $7.2 billion worth of investments expended in the federal stimulus budget, a comprehensive National Broadband Plan (NBP), and changes to the Universal Service Fund allocating an additional $4 billion annually to broadband.

The emphasis offederal policy, however, has been on the construction of rural broadband infrastructure, largely neglecting cities. Yet, it is cities and metropolitan areas that promise the most substantial payoffs for these broadband investments, which were part of the economic stimulus. Urban areas, with their density of economic activity, offer the largest economic gains from high-speed networks and their varied uses (Forman, Goldfarb, and Greenstein 2005, 2008, 2009). Affordable broadband options in cities could have done far more to address disparities in Internet access and use, which was another goal of federal policy. The nation’s population is concentrated in cities and metropolitan areas, including many who are offline or less-connected. By focusing on rural infrastructure (where there is little existing private investment), current federal programs avoid competition and political conflict with the major telecommunications firms, but the programs also fail to address either the opportunities or policy problems associated with broadband use. The consequences for the nation as a whole may be inefficient and ineffective public policies.

Broadband has become the standard for Internet use, and the United States lags behind many other developed countries in terms of speed, affordability, and adoption.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.