Availability and speed of internet connectivity for individuals or households can greatly affect the quality of education, healthcare, and economic opportunities they receive, as well as access to critical public services.

The pandemic exacerbated the digital divide and brought this urgent problem to the forefront. Cisco and its public and private sector partners believe now is the time for the industry to get together to solve this complex challenge. This week, Cisco held two panel sessions with industry leaders and partners to discuss the urgent need to close the digital divide.

Cisco Rural Broadband Innovation Center: Open for Customers and Partners

Cisco recently announced the opening of our Rural Broadband Innovation Center in North Carolina to demonstrate to service providers how they can improve availability and affordability of internet access. Through the Center, Cisco is committed to bridging the gap between commercial viability of technology solutions offered by service providers and the cost of serving rural Americans.

On Monday July 19, Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins and I were joined by FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, Governor Roy Cooper of North Carolina, and TruVista COO and President, Carla French, to share more about the Innovation Center, and discuss how the private sector and government can change the economics of broadband access in the U.S. Through our conversation, it became clear that broadband inequity comes down to two factors: access and cost.

Today, cost is the primary factor that determines who has connectivity. Thirty-five years of incremental broadband evolution has created rigidity within the internet, making it costly to maintain, and that cost will only continue to grow as it ages. To connect the next billion users, we need to fundamentally change the economics of the internet so it will work for everyone, not just the privileged.

For TruVista, a communications service provider in North Carolina and Cisco customer, the pandemic accelerated the work being done to provide all communities with access to broadband. Carla French discussed some success with government programs and funding, but said additional efforts are needed. She recommends expanding government funding, simplifying guidelines to lower barriers, and maximizing the opportunities that already exist.

Commissioner Starks said that over 30M Americans don’t have access to the internet because they simply can’t afford it. He spoke about the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit Program to provide support to households who need it.  However, it has been a challenge to inform all eligible individuals of the program.

Lack of access is not a problem government can solve without a clear strategy. Such a sweeping problem requires a sweeping solution: we must change the economics of the internet to ensure no one is left behind. Chuck Robbins reinforced that there is an urgent need to make these dramatic changes saying, “I’m optimistic that we can solve this together, but also know there’s a lot of hard work, there’s an awful lot of complexity, but I think that the time is now.”

Bridging the Digital Divide with Municipalities

On Thursday July 22, Cisco brought together municipal leaders and technology decision-makers who are working to bridge the digital divide in the U.S. and abroad, ensuring that everyone has equal access to a reliable internet connection. Cisco’s Michael Beesley, Vice President and CTO, Mass-Scale Infrastructure Group, moderated a discussion with Antoinette Meier, Director of Mobility and Innovation at San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), Eugene Mejia, Deputy CTO for Town of Gilbert, Arizona, and Tiago Rodrigues, CEO of the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA).

The panelists discussed the challenges they face as municipal leaders and technology decision-makers. Antoinette Meier noted that reliable data is difficult to come by, and this data is critical to paint a holistic picture of the problem for leaders to address. Broadband is more than being able to access your favorite websites. Technology has fundamentally changed transportation, healthcare, and education, and data is needed to hold leaders accountable to communities. Every panelist discussed funding hurdles while reiterating that connectivity and access are essential to quality of life.

The panelists also shared their strategy for overcoming challenges. For the Town of Gilbert, Arizona, Eugene Mejia said their driving strategy is to be as future-looking as possible when planning and making investments. In Gilbert, they were fortunate to have a strong 5G-ready infrastructure built prior to the pandemic, which enabled them to better adapt and serve their community when things moved online. While he admitted government doesn’t always work at the speed of business, he emphasized the importance of laying those foundations now to enable a brighter future.

Tiago Rodrigues leads international efforts as the CEO of Wireless Broadband Alliance, a non-profit working to develop a series of standards, guidelines, and best practices with the goal of driving seamless, interoperable service experiences via Wi-Fi. His organization is partnering with others to champion Open Roaming, an innovative technology that automatically connects a user’s mobile phone to the location’s local Wi-Fi network without having to re-authenticate, enabling ubiquitous connectivity. Imagine if users were connected instantly with Wi-Fi at airports, coffee shops, and malls, with no friction, lowering the barrier to Wi-Fi access.

Private-public partnerships present additional opportunities for collaboration of people and organizations with the same goal. I’m pleased to share that SANDAG and Cisco announced today a new partnership focused on bridging the digital divide, supporting the development of SANDAG’s Regional Digital Equity Strategy and Action Plan, which seeks to improve high-speed internet access and adoption in areas where there are gaps. Cisco will support SANDAG as a consultant to help identify barriers to broadband expansion and develop strategies and solutions for addressing these barriers in the form of an actionable roadmap.

New Research: Cisco U.S. Municipal Infrastructure Index 2021

Today, Cisco released new research to provide a data-driven look at where broadband infrastructure is being prioritized for municipalities across the country. The study, conducted by Probolsky Research, polled local government executives from cities, counties, towns, and Tribal governments of all sizes, in regions across the U.S. Of those surveyed, 80% said broadband is “critical infrastructure” and placed connectivity improvements and upgrades near the top of their priority project list, underscoring the pressing need to close the digital divide.

So, what’s stopping them? The answer will not surprise you: the primary barrier to reliable broadband connectivity is a lack of funding. More than three quarters of officials are concerned about the high cost of broadband for their residents, and 70% said they have ready-to-go projects just waiting for funding allocation.

Read the full report:

Cisco: U.S. Municipal Infrastructure Index 2021

A report on the infrastructure priorities and challenges

facing U.S. municipal leaders

Where Do We Go from Here?

Local government leaders, non-profits and private enterprise that have been working hard to close the digital divide have had to be creative with how they accomplish their goals. This is an incredibly complex problem, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. One thing remains clear: it is critical that we work together to establish new rules, create flexibility, and allow customization for municipal leaders to help bridge the digital divide.

Despite the hurdles we’re up against, much like Chuck, I remain optimistic. From our discussions this week, one thing really stood out to me: the dedication and commitment of the people who have made digital equity their mission. It takes collaboration, patience, and perseverance to do this work, and I am humbled by what they’ve been able to accomplish so far. We have so much more work to do to close the gap, but especially after this week, I’m excited and hopeful for what’s to come.

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Jonathan Davidson

EVP and General Manager

Cisco Networking