U.S. cities back broadband projects as COVID-19 exposes digital divide

Voters in two major U.S. cities have backed proposals for municipal broadband projects that seek to guarantee internet access for residents, as the pandemic highlights a deepening digital divide in the United States.

With classes and many healthcare and other public services going online, local authorities are increasingly concerned about extending internet access even as funding shortfalls and legislative hurdles complicate municipal broadband initiatives.

In Chicago, nearly 90% of voters backed a Nov. 3 referendum proposal for the city to ensure internet access in all “community areas”, while Denver residents voted to opt out of a state law stopping the city from developing a broadband network.

The measure, known as 2H, garnered more than 80% of the vote, clearing the way for the city to potentially build its own infrastructure or form a partnership to do so.

“A year ago, some people would say: I don’t see a problem with some people needing to go to McDonald’s, or the library to get internet,” said Christopher Mitchell, director of the community broadband networks initiative at non-profit group the Institute for Local Self Reliance.

“Today, I don’t think many people will take that seriously – these victories will embolden those of us who want to make extending broadband a priority.”

Some 16 million children, or 30% of all U.S. public school students, lack either an internet connection or a device at home adequate for distance learning, according to a recent study by Boston Consulting Group.

In Chicago, that burden fell disproportionately on poor and minority communities, said Daniel Anello, chief executive of the child advocacy group Kids First Chicago.

The group released a report earlier this year that found up to 80% of families lacked broadband access in parts of Chicago, even as the school system moved online due to coronavirus curbs.

Across the city, about “one in five children under the age of 18 lack access to broadband, and are primarily Black or Latinx/a/o,” the report said.

“We work with poor Black and brown families, and since the pandemic started broadband went from their 10th priority in education to number one,” Anello said.

“People shouldn’t have to make a decision between putting food on the table, or their kids learning,” he said.


In Denver, about one in five residents do not have access to high-speed internet, said Spencer McCullough, a software engineer who helped spearhead the 2H initiative.

“The internet is not just cat videos, it’s a human right,” said McCullough, adding that he hoped the outcome of this week’s public vote would eventually drive down the cost of broadband access for low-income families in the city.

Mitchell said private internet service providers (ISP) often block local governments from building their own broadband networks, and lobby for laws to restrict public options.

Nineteen states have legislation that makes it difficult to set up municipal-backed broadband networks, he said.

Voters also seem less enthusiastic about backing measures that raise funds for municipal broadband, he noted, pointing to a defeated ballot measure in Lucas, Texas, that sought to raise $19 million to build a local fiber-optic cable utility.

COVID-19 relief bills from the federal government have given some support for cities seeking to expand their broadband networks, but lawmakers in Washington have yet to allocate enough long-term funds to combat the problem, experts say.

If this week’s election leads to a more divided government in Washington, federal legislation could be further stalled.

Still, the ballots this week in Chicago and Denver may signal a shift on the issue, Mitchell said.

“We will see more of these questions in other cities cropping up,” he said. “It’s a good organizing strategy to make this a priority.”


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Avi Asher-Schapiro | Thomson Reuters Foundation

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