In each Ten Minutes with a Changemaker segment, members of the Next Century Cities team sit down with a local, state, or federal representative to explore broadband access in their respective communities. On June 1, 2020, we interviewed Denise Linn Riedl, the Chief Innovation Officer (CIO) of South Bend, Indiana. As CIO, Riedl is head of the Department of Innovation & Technology which includes IT, 311, open data, performance management, and local innovation initiatives. She is also currently a fellow at The Benton Institute for Broadband and Society. During the course of her fellowship she has written Toward Inclusive Urban Technology: Lessons, cases, and resources developed by local technology champions and planners.
Riedl answered the following questions, framing our broadband discussion. You can read more about her work in the following pieces on smart cities and civic engagement: Smart Cities, Inclusive Technology, and Public Service Inclusion and Civic Engagement in Public Technology Building and Planning.
How does the digital divide manifest itself in your community?
I have quickly learned about the plight of the mid-sized city and how that presents its own challenges around the digital divide, technology resources, and the economy. Here in South Bend we have pretty low broadband adoption, higher than the national average. Almost 30% of households don’t have at-home subscriptions for broadband according to the most recent American Community Survey data.
We also have a low fiber footprint. Even underlying the adoption challenge that we have with our residents and our community, our city does not have the infrastructure it needs to thrive in the future and be a true 21st Century City.
Our Department also does work on transportation equity and mobility innovation – a subject with some parallels. Digital divide challenges mirror what many mid-sized cities feel in the transportation realm as well. For instance, we just don’t have the density or population to make a case for a more robust, modern system seen in larger cities. The difference, of course, is local control. In transportation, local government can do more to move the needle on equity.
How can state and federal leadership help support local efforts?
When it comes to telecommunications infrastructure, we as a city in Indiana have less direct control to put public dollars towards those challenges and we have to be really creative around both short-term and long-term solutions when it comes to the digital divide.
Expanded federal funding for cities of our size and situation would have major impact and support for mid-size cities specifically. We are too urban to qualify for USDA support, but we also don’t have the market density that naturally attracts timely incumbent upgrades.
What do you want the residents of South Bend to know about your team’s work?
First, questions around broadband, broadband at-home access, and internet access aren’t separate from the issues that out community already cares about. Digital access impacts everything: equitable economic development, education, and civic engagement.
Second, access is really important to us and we believe in always making progress on two fronts at the same time: short term, but impactful programmatic solutions (ex: partnered trainings, PC reburbishing) as well as long term, systemic planning around infrastructure.
Third, our team mantra is “listen first, build with” and we really mean it. We are very interested in what residents want and what their personal and community goals around technology are – whether it impacts our 311 system or a new city application.
Is there a way for us to achieve universal broadband connectivity?
I think we have to change the policy framework. Broadband is more of an essential utility today than it is a luxury, so if we continue to regulate it as a luxury, we will always have a divide despite the fact that so many of our institutions assume that all people have it. For instance, in addition to doing digital inclusion work, our team is in charge of technology and digital services. We can never be a 100% digital city without paper options and in-person outreach as long as this divide exists.
We have to invest in it as infrastructure – the way we talk about roads, bridges, electricity, etc.
What is the cost if we are unable to address the digital divide?
Not addressing the digital divide will lead to a loss of social mobility and opportunities due to suffering of e-learning, job seeking, and online training. Ignoring the divide will also make it more difficult to access preventative health resources. Democratic participation and engagement will also suffer if the digital divide is not addressed. Ignoring the digital divide will also laminate inequities around infrastructure, making those inequities harder, and harder, and more expensive to bridge as years go by.
Next Century Cities is committed to bringing awareness to broadband issues present in communities around the country and elevating those concerns to the national stage in order to effect positive change. To learn more about what we are doing to expand broadband access, check out our news updates.