This article is part of the “Equity and Infrastructure: How Infrastructure Influences Social Equity” series that is being published by Civil Engineering magazine and the Civil Engineering Source. 

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed how much we all depend on a robust broadband connection to conduct our lives and how people are put at a disadvantage when they don’t have access to one. Nationwide, according to an article in the Harvard Business Review, one teen in five was unable to do homework during the COVID pandemic because of unreliable internet service, while “12 million children were without internet access altogether.”

chromebook in old bookbag
(Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash)

And even before the COVID-related lockdowns, more and more of modern life was taking place online as people telecommuted and virtually accessed health or insurance records, communicated with doctors, and conducted job searches or training, among other things.

Identifying the growing need for broadband in modern life, ASCE’s 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure for the first time offered a spotlight on broadband this year.

According to the Oakland, California-based nonprofit Greenlining, nearly 22% of Californians are unconnected or under-connected to the internet. Latino households are only about one third as likely to have access to home internet as are white households, and the state’s wealthiest households are 16 times more likely to have access to home internet as are the poorest ones.

Broadband challenges in Los Angeles

Los Angeles County has found a striking correlation between lack of internet, lower median income, and Latino or Black households. Leveraging geographic information system maps and data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the county created three maps that, viewed together, show this correlation. Census tracts where at least 20.1% of households lack internet, census tracts where median household income is $50,000 or less, and census tracts where the predominant race is either Latino or Black overlap in concentrated locations in East Los Angeles and the communities south of Los Angeles along Interstate 110.

In LA County, many factors contribute to the divide as it stands now. “The No. 1 issue for the families we serve is cost,” says Chase Stafford, the vice president of policy and planning for the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, which manages 19 LA Unified School District schools serving more than 14,000 students.

“Paying upwards of $50 a month for internet is not sustainable for many families in Watts, South LA, and Boyle Heights,” Stafford explains. Telecom providers do offer subsidies, but activists contend they often balloon into higher monthly rates. Families face other barriers, he adds, including poor customer service, language differences, and digital literacy gaps.

In 2020, the partnership conducted a family needs assessment phone survey of more than 1,000 families in these three areas that revealed many common issues parents have around broadband access. The problems included students receiving school laptops that were not working or that they could not get to work and little tech support to help students struggling to get online.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has made more than 10,000 hot spots available to high school students from more than 143 schools who have no or limited internet access at home. Complicating their use by students, however, is the fact that, according to a report by Stewards of Affordable Housing for the Future, "older buildings often lack the wiring for wireless internet connection and thick walls can block the transmission of Wi-Fi and satellite signals." Jarrett Barrios, senior vice president of programs for the California Community Foundation, and others agree that this is an issue around Los Angeles.

Also problematic are internet speeds. In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission set regulatory requirements that internet access be no slower than 25 megabits per second download and 3 Mbps upload. This was deemed necessary to handle “high-quality video, data, voice, and other broadband applications.”

“Today, with all of the devices in a household that need to connect to broadband, just two students using a 25/3 network connection at the same time can easily overwhelm it,” says Barrios. “It's clear that the FCC standard is outdated and subpar for today's realities.”

According to Greenlining, the average (median) internet speed in America was 72 Mbps in 2017. The organization indicates that average users will need speeds of 150 Mbps by 2025, but most low-income internet plans top out at 10-15 Mbps.

Further, there’s little competition among internet providers. “Internet service providers operate as lightly regulated monopolies in much of the state and are not incentivized or held accountable for investing in communities where more low-income residents live,” says Stafford.

Barrios says that the broadband market in LA is dominated by two large players, Spectrum and AT&T. “We are effectively a duopoly, with all the problems that go along with that,” Barrios says, including overpricing, poor quality, and poor customer service. “A lot of that lines up to … ZIP code. The areas that have had the poorest investments in broadband infrastructure are the same places that have the poorest reliability of service and often the most expensive service. They also have some of the poorest customer service practices. All of this makes us want to look elsewhere.”

Providers, says Barrios, haven’t invested as robustly in poorer neighborhoods, relying on legacy infrastructure, a patchwork of antiquated copper wires along with some newer fiber, a practice he refers to as digital redlining. Barrios argues wealthier communities in LA have received more fiber.

“Broadband investments are not equally distributed across LA County, with income and race being the two primary variables that directly impact investment in a specific region,” says Barrios. He notes that, according to a 2014-2017 University of Southern California study, relatively wealthy Glendale had access to 100% competition in broadband choices, versus South Los Angeles, which remained a fiber “desert” with a quarter of residents having no broadband choices in 2017.

Bridging the digital divide

Barrios and others are looking to the California Legislature, which unanimously, passed a bill in July approving $6 billion to build open-access “middle mile” fiber lines across the state. Internet service providers can then link to these middle-mile lines in “last mile” connections they make from the trunk lines to customers’ homes. The bill also allocates $2 billion for last-mile connections. Barrios believes the publicly owned network, which will take three to four years to build out, will ensure all communities are equitably served, while its open access will encourage more competition from private carriers to provide those last-mile connections. 

Meanwhile, LA County budgeted $18.7 million (from a total allocation of $1.2 billion) in spending from last year’s $2.2 trillion federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act toward a trio of programs aimed at bridging the digital divide, including a laptop lending program, computers and hot spots for area school districts, and the expansion of Wi-Fi connectivity in library parking lots for residents to use. 

While 18 states limit municipalities from developing their own broadband networks, some cities, including Tucson, Arizona, have built them. And Los Angeles County is considering doing just that. Selwyn Hollins, the director of the Los Angeles County Internal Services Department, which oversees a variety of back-of-house services, from facility management to information technology to power plants to purchasing and contracts, says the county has the means to do it. The county owns radio towers and thousands of facilities that offer free public Wi-Fi and could be integrated into a more comprehensive system.

At the same time, Hollins sounds reluctant at the prospect of the county spending a lot of money to build an overlapping network with private carriers when the carriers could simply improve the service they already offer. “Will we do it? It’s hard to say. We really are looking closely at it,” Hollins says.

David Witkowski, a senior member and co-chair of the Deployment Working Group at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics EngineersFuture Networks, notes that municipalities would not only have to engineer and fund any networks but also maintain them. “Cities would have to staff up for this. They’d have to invest, and they’d have to essentially become carriers,” he says. “Can cities do that in the context of all the other things they do? And once they start doing it, they have to keep doing it — otherwise they’ll eventually leave people high and dry.”

Still, Barrios and others point out that Americans should no longer consider telecommunications to be a luxury but an essential utility. (By analogy, he says, the presence of private hospitals in a city doesn’t preclude a city or county from running its own “County General” to care for the most needy in a region.) 

Public-private partnerships offer a way to get many stakeholders on the same page. In Ottawa County, Michigan — just west of Grand Rapids — county officials realized a decade ago that poor internet service was hampering the ability of public safety officers to stay connected. So Paul Sachs, the director of the county’s department of planning and performance improvement, gathered providers together and talked to them about their tower construction across the county. Providers told him they weren’t getting enough service load in the more rural portions of the county to justify building more towers. So Sachs proposed a new idea: The county would build towers in underserved areas, and then rent space on the towers to local service providers.   

The public-private partnership required service providers in the area to privately disclose their infrastructure data to the county so Sachs’ department could gauge where the county’s investment in its own towers made the most sense.

“It was definitely a worthwhile investment for us,” says Sachs. “Not only are we able to eliminate dead zones in coverage, we're able to achieve a return on investment ourselves.” With two carriers agreeing to co-locate on the county’s towers, the county could pay the towers off in less than five years and grew its base of covered residents from between 75% and 80% to 99%.

Opportunities for civil engineers

There are opportunities and challenges for civil engineers working in this space. Most engineers in municipal public works departments are civil engineers, but many are also being tasked with helping set up telecom systems, which is more in the wheelhouse of an electrical engineer who is specialized in telecommunications.

“Civil engineers aren’t electrical engineers,” says Witkowski. “Telecom is not a function (that) cities have had to (previously) manage. Telecom is a fairly new thing for them, (and) they’re still not well versed at it. That creates a lot of challenges.” 

To help more engineers bone up on the essentials, Witkowski and the IEEE have developed a two-day course that leads to an IEEE certificate. The goal is to help civil engineers understand the technical nuances of telecom applications that come into their cities. “We need cities to begin training their civil engineers to do this, and cities should be hiring on the basis of their engineers’ understanding of this,” says Witkowski.

Rethinking the problem

At the same time, there’s an opportunity for engineers to reconsider how they approach their work. "Engineers play a critical role in the digital divide or addressing this issue,” says Katie Latham, E.I., A.M.ASCE, founder and managing partner of Chicago-based Talman Consultants LLC. “This is a modern problem. This a problem we've never really faced as engineers. We need to make sure our planning processes are designed to meet these challenges.” 

Talman was hired by a telecom company called Crown Castle in April 2018 to help coordinate the deployment of 3,600 small cell 5G towers and 2.5 million linear ft of fiber in the Chicagoland area. The consulting company has developed a more custom, holistic practice that tries to engage all stakeholders rather than simply defer to experts that are siloed in their narrow specialties. “When you go to deploy fiber, you have to do it in (a) living, breathing municipality,” Latham says. “You have to navigate other work, navigating approvals, permitting timelines — each location carries its own set of issues and variables you need to work around."

This holistic approach, including meeting with city alderpeople allowed Latham and her colleague, James Norton, P.E., M.ASCE, a partner at Talman, to collaborate with the city and their client on an equitable rollout that wrapped up six months ahead of schedule. 

“If you want to get the high-rent areas, you had to do the whole city,” Norton said. “If you want to deploy on an aggressive scale, you can’t just do the Magnificent Mile and walk away. That’s never going to work. As engineers we want to make the world a better place. To make it a better place, you have to make it better for everyone.”

And, regardless of whether municipal networks or more private carriers can emerge to provide more competition and affordability to communities in Los Angeles, advocacy groups tout the importance of providing better mapping data to continue to pinpoint areas that need faster service.

Read all the pieces in “Equity and Infrastructure: How Infrastructure Influences Social Equity,” and "How can civil engineers bridge the broadband divide?" from the Civil Engineering Source.