Image: Electra Sinclair

Deb Socia Wants Your City's Internet to Not Suck

The executive director of Next Century Cities is leading a coalition to promote municipal broadband.

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Feb 3 2017, 8:19pm

Image: Electra Sinclair


Humans of the Year





On November 8, when Donald Trump greeted his delirious supporters at the Midtown Hilton Hotel in New York City following his unexpected victory over Hillary Clinton, he claimed that America would "no longer settle for anything less than the best," and that the country would "dream big and bold and daring."

People like Deb Socia, the executive director of Next Century Cities, hope the real estate billionaire-turned improbable president-elect had broadband infrastructure in mind when he was talking so aspirationally about the country's future.

"When in our country's history have we ever been happy with being 16th or 17th at anything?" Socia asked Motherboard in a recent interview. "Somehow we've gotten to a place where this issue has not gotten the attention I think it needs to."

Socia, recipient of a Motherboard Humans of the Year award for her group's efforts to improve this country's woeful broadband infrastructure, clearly has a right to be upset: According to the most recent broadband performance rankings released by networking and cloud services provider Akamai, the US ranks only 12th in the world in terms of average broadband speed. (The US clocks in at 16.3 megabits per second, well behind broadband powerhouses like first place South Korea, which clocks in at 26.3 megabits per second.) 

To Socia, the fact that access to fast and affordable broadband is still merely a pipe dream for large swaths of the country, particularly to people in rural areas, should serve to counter the long-running narrative of innate American exceptionalism.

Based in Washington, DC, Next Century Cities was founded two years ago as a result of Socia's frustration with the glacial pace of broadband development in the US. Unlike traditional advocacy groups that similarly agitate for broadband expansion, such as Public Knowledge and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Next Century Cities' membership is directly made up of more than 160 cities across the US whose mayors and other local officials see broadband as a critical component of their citizens' future prosperity. And these citizens, according to Socia, "are fussing" at their local leaders about the lack of progress improving broadband access and affordability.

Part of Socia's job, then, is to help these leaders better understand what, if any, broadband options are available to them, and how they might go about attracting broadband investment, whether from the private or public sector. Some cities that are part of Next Century Cities, like Cortez, CO, and Emmet, ID, are at the earliest stages of that conversation, and are still deciding how exactly they want to go about bringing broadband to their citizens. Others, like Chattanooga, TN, and Austin, TX, are part of Socia's coalition to share knowledge of just how vital high-speed broadband can be.

While Socia noted that there's nothing wrong with using broadband to, say, stream the latest Netflix original series in pristine 4K or download multi-gigabyte video games from Steam in the blink of an eye, these mayors and other local leaders regularly pepper her with questions about broadband's usefulness.

"How do you use broadband well," she asks, relaying questions she regularly fields from local leaders around the country. "How do you market it? And how do you ensure that it's used for things like participatory democracy and civic engagement?"

It's up to people like Socia to explain to these leaders why access to fast and affordable broadband matters—higher property values and an increased likelihood that a city's young adults will return home after they're done with college—and what they can do today to better position their citizens to have access to it tomorrow.

"Voters have great power," she added. "If your city or county or town is not a member, tell 'em to join. It doesn't cost anything, and we'll keep folks informed, give them information, and create a collaboration so that they can talk to one another. There is power in numbers, so having more than 160 mayors is a good thing."

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