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The internet is often called the fourth utility, as essential to our lives as electricity, gas, and water—yet over 30 million Americans lack access, with some estimates even more bleak.1 In a study by the Pew Research Foundation, Microsoft estimated the number of Americans without broadband (internet access with download speeds of at least 25 Mbps and upload speeds of at least 2 Mbps) could be over 163 million.

The digital divide in America’s cities follows household income levels, further limiting opportunities for disadvantaged populations.3 The coronavirus pandemic brought this inequality further into the spotlight as some children completed homework in parking lots using the Wi-Fi from a nearby McDonald’s and some just stopped showing up to their virtual classes altogether. According to a recent study, nearly 30% of K-12 students lack adequate internet access for remote learning.

Remote learning is not the only aspect of modern life which suffers as a result of unequal internet access. Finding and applying for jobs also becomes more difficult. The inability of parents and guardians to work from home only exasperates the complications of virtual learning and child-care issues of working parents and guardians. Access to credit is limited and the inability to pay bills online leads to hours wasted waiting in line to pay utilities every month. Unequal digital access also costs the community. New York City, for example, estimates that with universal broadband across its 8.5 million residents—the city would see a $142B increase in Gross City Product, the creation of an additional 165,000 jobs and a $49B increase in personal income amongst residents.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought this issue onto the front page, but it has existed for decades. Let’s seize this moment to make the change our communities need and ensure equal internet access. A suggested action plan for tackling the digital divide is below.

Action Plan

Define the target of the scoring system

  • Identify the organizations currently involved at the grass roots in the community, those currently providing equipment, training and who see the day to day struggles and challenges
  • Engage these representatives of the community to define the most pressing needs and use cases (e.g. virtual learning, telemedicine, government assistance programs, credit access, remote work opportunities). Begin recurring meetings to define and track both short term and long terms goals. Define success and begin developing actionable items to address the needs and gaps in the community

Study the current conditions

  • Gather existing census and socioeconomic data and add this to a map of your community.
  • Add a layer to this map that indicates the current availability of broadband, which includes existing broadband service providers, regional dark fiber providers as well as any private or public fiber optic networks.
  • From this map, identify the areas that lack broadband access for prioritization.
  • Identify the issues preventing the areas of the greatest socioeconomic disparity from adopting broadband (e.g. lack of equipment, technical literacy, personal choice).
  • Calculate the additional potential economic advantage that closing the gap in the digital divide could bring to your community.

Develop solutions to close the gap

  • Focusing on the areas prioritized in the study phase above, develop:
  • Short term solutions that utilize existing infrastructure. Provide subsidies to reduce the monthly cost, provide education to residents where broadband exists and where these subsidies are offered, provide mobile hot spots and data plans.
  • Medium-term solutions that may include leveraging existing city and community buildings and network infrastructure to expand broadband access (e.g. community provided Wi-Fi, mobile Wi-Fi access in specific areas).
  • Long-term solutions that require construction of infrastructure through both wired and wireless solutions

Identify funding sources

  • There are broadband funding sources that currently exist through both state and federal grants such as the EDA-HDQ-RNTA-2018-2005669 Grant offered by the US Department of Commerce.
  • Depending on use-cases, CARES funding6 may be used to rapidly address the worst-served areas.
  • Other sources of funding include non-profit foundations, private company donations, government subsidies.
  • Pursue strategies to offset capital and operational costs (e.g. public-private-partnerships, re-use of existing municipal and dark fiber).


  • Develop a timeline for the prioritized areas based on greatest need (e.g. virtual learning, remote working).
  • Conduct feasibility and impact studies of the potential technology solutions for the prioritized areas.
  • Conduct pilot programs for the selected solution in the prioritized areas
  • Evaluate and establish the operational model (e.g. PPP, expansion of existing municipal staff, third party outsourcing).
  • Determine procurement path (e.g. existing state or federal contract vehicles, public RFP, sole source).

AECOM Resources and Case Studies

The City of Columbus

AECOM was commissioned by the Columbus Foundation to assess the City of Columbus Ohio’s broadband infrastructure. The requirements were to identify gaps in coverage areas and recommend strategies for bridging the digital divide in underserved neighborhoods. AECOM analyzed various federal, state, and local data resources to establish the statistical broadband needs of economically disadvantaged households in the target area and provided a detailed status on the presence of metro fiber networks and their proximity to the neighborhoods in focus.

The resulting report established that the lack of internet access in these areas was not the issue rather, AECOM established that there were multiple options for broadband service providers throughout the city. Instead, it was determined that it was the affordability of the service itself coupled with the household requirement for a mobile phone subscription that was driving the lack of broadband usage. As a result, AECOM outlined short, medium, and long-term infrastructure technologies to address the issue of affordability and is now working to conduct a broadband infrastructure feasibility study to recommend a medium-term solution for addressing the problem in those specific neighborhoods.

The City of Fairlawn

In late 2014, The City of Fairlawn realized broadband was an essential infrastructure that could attract businesses and provide current businesses with tools for growth. They also recognized broadband could increase home values, attract and retain residents and consumers. By June of 2016, the ideas of this new utility became a reality and the creation of FairlawnGig began.

The City of Fairlawn established FairlawnGig as a forward-thinking, economic development strategy founded on the belief that business growth, innovation, and community transformation will follow with every connection. The result is that the City of Fairlawn now owns and operates a municipal broadband utility which provides for download speeds of 1000 Mbps (Gigabit) and is offered as an essential utility without taxes or assessments with a General Fund paid for without payback requirements. Residents have seen a reduction in the cost of broadband service from over $4 per Mbps from traditional providers to nearly 7.5 cents per Mbps utilizing the city’s broadband service. This broadband service delivers a better Internet experience for residents and businesses in Fairlawn and the Akron/Bath/Fairlawn JEDD.

FairlawnGig’s high-speed fiber network offers an unprecedented level of Internet service to the Fairlawn area with a gigabit fiber connection to every home and business. Gigabit Internet access is delivered over a 100% fiber optic network. FairlawnGig offers both residential Internet and specialized business Internet services. There are no equipment fees, no data caps and no long-term contracts. The utility provides true triple play service with telephone, video and internet service capabilities and offerings. AECOM is working with the City of Fairlawn to close the gap in the Digital Divide in Summit County and the region by expanding their network to cover these areas that currently have little or no high-speed internet access. The current pandemic situation has only reinforced the need for this expansion and has proven what the city knew was needed at the inception of FairlawnGig