Infrastructure, connectivity, and the two-tier American economy

by American City & County Contributor
May 23, 2018

By Dale Neef

The Trump Administration’s infrastructure proposal has been criticized for the modest amount of money being offered by the federal government and the formula machinations states would have to go through in order to get those funds. What was really surprising about the proposal was that it showed no appreciation for the transformative changes that are just around the corner with the shared, electrified, autonomous vehicle (AV) economy.

Transportation infrastructure is no longer just about readable road signs or repainting no-passing zone stripes; from now on, it’s all about connectivity.

in the next two decades signs, curbs, traffic lights, and the roads themselves, will have embedded chips transmitting information concerning speed, location and direction that autonomous vehicles will sense and respond to in real time. Small cell 5G technologies attached to poles and signs will allow vehicles to sense pedestrians, or bicyclists, or other vehicles.

Ultimately all of this data will need to be passed to the Internet through fiber optic cable. That’s why in cities and suburbs private carriers are investing in fiber in a big way. They understand that without fiber optic cable, you don’t have high-speed broadband, or 5G and small cell technology, or sensor-to-sensor connectivity, or big data collection capabilities. In short, without fiber optic cable availability, you can’t really participate in the AV economy. 

Fiber availability will soon be nearly universal for Americans living in cities and suburbs – these areas are attracting so much private capital that they really don’t need federal funds.

But that’s not true of our rural communities which today are still languishing with rudimentary copper and cable technologies, or often no broadband availability at all. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), nearly 40% of people living in rural areas (23.4 million people) still have no access to threshold broadband levels of 25/3 Mbps, (this compared with 4 percent of city residents). Even, worse, nearly one quarter of the entire population living in rural areas – 14.5 million people – still can’t access even basic broadband of 4/1 Mbps.

This is already a serious issue in today’s “Gig” economy, because high-speed broadband affects everything from education to employment, health care to economic development. But it will be even worse for dying towns and rural communities if they are overlooked during the next phase of digital evolution – especially while Americas living in the cities are about to experience a generational economic and digital boom. If we can’t figure out a way to provide rural communities with high-speed broadband, the (non)arrival of shared, autonomous vehicles will only exacerbate the growing digital divide – and the sense that small town and rural Americans are second-class citizens.

The answer? First, significantly increase federal funding for rural high-speed broadband, matched with a program to encourage regional co-ops and utilities to combine optical fiber deployment with provision of charging stations tied to the electrical grid (in a 2017 white paper, the FCC estimated that it would cost $40 billion to provide all but the most isolated areas of America with high-speed broadband).

Second, the federal government should encourage regional enterprise corridors and extended economic zones by bolstering independent agencies such as the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Delta Regional Authority, and the Northern Border Regional Commission.  

Finally, leveraging federal funding and public private partnerships (P3s), these agencies should work toward digitally connecting hospitals, schools and libraries in rural areas. These “anchor institutions,” acting as the foundation of a regional fiber network, are natural bedfellows with AV technologies. Combined, they can be the basis for revitalizing and reconnecting isolated areas: serving an aging population, attracting new business, and providing an incentive for students and younger workers to remain local.

One of the mantras in the AV community is that AVs should have no jurisdictional boundaries. Yet without significant funding for rural broadband infrastructure, that is exactly what will happen – our shared, autonomous vehicle economy will be stopping at the city limits.


Dale Neef is a strategic technology consultant and the author of "Digital Exhaust: What Everyone Should Know About Big Data, Digitization and Digitally Driven Innovation." He is on the American Planning Association’s smart city task force and is a member of the International City and County Management Association (ICMA).

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