Better Broadband Better Lives

Smarter Cities Need Better Broadband to Realize Their Networking Potential

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September 19, 2011 - America’s unique concept of federalism – joint sovereignty between the states and the federal government – sometimes obscures some on-the-ground realities when it comes to the all-important topic of economic growth and development. The simple fact is that cities serve as the engine of life, commerce, culture and sociality.

What makes cities so important is the role they play in spurring connections and social networks. In the most recent edition of the Atlantic Monthly, Richard Florida argues that:

Cities are our greatest invention, not because of the scale of their infrastructure or their placement along key trade routes, but because they enable human beings to combine and recombine their talents and ideas in new ways. With their breadth of skills, dense social networks, and physical spaces for interactions, great cities and metro areas push people together and increase the kinetic energy between them.

In other words, we need to stop thinking of cities as the locus of industrial-age manufacturing (let alone agricultural trading spots), but as a place where people exchange information and ideas. No doubt Jane Jacobs would approve. Her book of 50 years ago, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, critiqued the rationalist urban planning with its strict separation of industrial, residential and commercial uses. (For a 2003 interview of Jane Jacobs on the role of technologies in cities, please see this link. Jacobs died in 2006.)

Cities have become much more livable over the past generation. I’ll leave it for experts to debate whether this is through the ascendency of Jacobs’ ideas, the ability of big cities to curb high crime rates, or through larger secular or demographic trends.

What we see now, however, is the emergence of the “Smart City.” Although smart cities mean different things to different people, there are a couple of core ideas behind these theme:

  • Intelligent traffic management and infrastructure improvements
  • Energy-efficient buildings
  • Interactive information sharing, including open data repositories
  • “Smart grid” usage by electric utilities

Many major cities – New York, Chicago, Toronto and others – are seeking to promote the concept, and many computing and bandwidth companies are promoting the concept. For example, IBM has launched the “Smarter Cities Challenge,” a competitive grant program to enable 100 world-wide cities to become more vibrant and livable places for citizens. See

When I watch the advertisements, or read the materials, that cities and companies are promoting around “Smart Cities,” I inevitably think: but what about broadband?

What are cities doing to ensure that the infrastructure builds are accompanied by fiber-optic wires, or ensuring that the “smart grid” is fully enabled through high-bandwidth connectivity, or that businesses and broadband centers have truly robust broadband capacity?

At the, we’re particularly interested in fostering debate around the question of broadband – and the role that high-speed internet is playing in promoting the economy, society and the purposes articulated in the National Broadband Plan.

Tomorrow, at the Broadband Breakfast Club event on September 20, 2011, at 8 a.m., we’ll engage on this subject. The discussion will feature Gale Brewer, a New York City Councilmember who has been one of the country’s leading advocates of better broadband. Gail has represented the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and currently chairs the Committee on Governmental Operations, where she has worked to make better use of technology to save money, improve city services, and bring residents, businesses and non-profits closer to government and their communities.

Gale Brewer will keynote this event, which is titled, “Making Cities of the Future Smarter Through Broadband.”

Another panelist on the program is Elise Kohn, Program Director for the University Community Next Generation Innovation Project, which is better known as “GigU.” GigU is one of the brain-children of Blair Levin, the former direction of the Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband Plan, and an innovative way to bridge the town-gown divide through super-fast connectivity.

Also on the program is Benjamin Lennett, Policy Director, Open Technology Initiative at the New America Foundation, which has been actively involved in a number of broadband-related projects in urban areas, including Philadelphia and Detroit. Lennett will be able to speak to innovative approaches to broadband.

Sarah Williams, Director, Spatial Information Design Lab, Columbia University, will also participate. Sarah’s research focuses on the representation of digital information/mapping and ecological design & planning. Previously, she started the Geographic Information System (GIS) Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and also worked with the West Philadelphia Landscape Project and the Philadelphia Water Department.

Don’t miss this important discussion on “Making Cities of the Future Smarter through Broadband.” Registration is available at The Broadband Breakfast Club is sponsored by Comcast, Google, ICF International, Intel, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, and the Telecommunications Industry Association. Also see the 2011-2012 program of the Broadband Breakfast Club series.

Drew Clark is the Editor and Publisher of and President of the Rural Telecommunications Congress. He is an attorney who works with cities, communities and companies to promote the benefits of internet connectivity. The articles and posts on and affiliated social media, including the BroadbandCensus Twitter feed are not legal advice or legal services, do not constitute the creation of an attorney-client privilege, and represent the views of their respective authors.

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