As the dust from last week's US general election continues to settle (or get further kicked up/tossed in each other's faces), at least one thing is clear: Voters in two major cities demonstrated overwhelming support for municipal broadband programs.
Community broadband was on the ballot in Denver and Chicago, where the majority of voters backed proposals that would allow for the creation of municipal broadband projects to close the digital divide.
Responding to the question on the ballot, "Should the city of Chicago act to ensure that all the city's community areas have access to broadband Internet?" 90% of voters said yes.
Meanwhile, 80% of voters in Denver chose to opt out of an existing state law that was preventing the city from developing a broadband network, thus restoring its right to "provide high-speed Internet (advanced services), telecommunication services, and cable television services, including any new and improved high bandwidth services based on future technologies, to residents, businesses, schools, libraries, non-profit entities and other users of such services either directly or indirectly with public or private sector partners."
While neither measure obliges the cities to begin constructing and operating municipal broadband networks, they both open the door for such projects to emerge as alternatives to cable providers whose services are often inaccessible or unaffordable to marginalized communities; a crisis that is only growing in the era of COVID-19.
Indeed, while Chicago is generally well-served by ISPs, with 45 total and each address serviceable by 4-5 providers (according to BroadbandNow), a report from Kids First Chicago released in April 2020 points out that this access is inequitable: "About 1 in 5 children under the age of eighteen lack access to broadband, and are primarily Black or Latinx/a/o," states the report.
Denver, too, benefits from having 53 ISPs, with most neighborhoods having access to 2-5 providers, according to Broadband Now. However, an estimated 34,000 people only have access to one or fewer wired providers, and approximately one in five Denver residents still lack access to speeds of 25 Mbit/s.
With these new ballot measures passed, Chicago and Denver could join a growing roster of regions developing community broadband solutions to meet the mounting challenges of the digital divide. According to a mapping project by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit that advocates for local economies, as of January 2020 over 560 communities in the US were served by a municipal network and more than 300 by a cooperative.
— Nicole Ferraro, contributing editor, Light Reading