Harvard’s Susan Crawford, connecting with Charlotte, N.C., residents over connectivity

Above: Susan Crawford, co-director, Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard University, during Knight Foundation’s Media Learning Seminar 2015. Photo by Patrick Farrell. 

At the reception before Susan Crawford’s talk at Queens University of Charlotte on Thursday evening, the center table with platters of fruit, cheese, and vegetables attracted few guests. Attendees were already busy talking about the topic of the evening.

The guests were buzzing about the digital divide, age and technology gaps, and the anticipation of Google Fiber, which is expected to begin service in Charlotte in 2017. It was clear Crawford was going to have an interested audience already well versed on Internet access.

Crawford, a professor at Harvard Law and co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, has written several books on the subject of connectivity. Her new book, “The Responsive City,” co-authored with Stephen Goldsmith, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, highlights case studies and practical ways that the digital age allows more meaningful connections between people and government. She recounted lessons learned while serving in the Obama administration, including a discussion with a senior official about shifting financial aid from those who can’t afford telephones to those without Internet. He responded, “But phones are two-way.” The conversation made her realize how little people understand the need for access to fast Internet.

Even the savvy Queens University crowd responded with gasps several times during the discussion as Crawford gave statistics on the state of access in the U.S. Less than 10 percent of Americans have access to fiber networks, a technology that passes information through glass or plastic fiber-optic cables as pulses of light instead of the classic coaxial cables used by most Internet providers. Coaxial cables are much slower, especially when attempting to upload information.

In the U.S., the percentage of homes with fiber connectivity is below countries such as Japan, Sweden and Iceland. The result is a United States that’s performing well below its potential, Crawford said. Universal fiber access would yield several benefits nationwide, she said.

One is a human aspect. Consistent contact with families who live far away is possible when we have more data, more quickly. Making the conversation more personal, Crawford said that this technology, would mean her mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, wouldn’t have to leave her home to receive the monitoring she needs.

“It’s all about people,” Crawford said.

Other benefits are financial, Crawford said. More employees could work remotely; with universal fiber networks, people could access their work equally from anywhere. The change would also attract new businesses and talent to the country. If doctors could see their patients in their own homes over video, it would save tens of billions of dollars in health care costs, she said.

“The difference between having fiber and not having it is as great as the difference between having electricity and not having it,” Crawford said.

Some of these projections are already becoming realities in several cities, where companies are investing in fiber networks that offer speeds up to one gigabit per second; the U.S. average is a fraction of that. The federal government also has announced a program called ConnectHome to bring high-speed Internet to low-income residents and students across 28 cities.

Cedar Falls, Iowa—the state’s first gigabit city—has seen a tremendous growth in the number of businesses moving to the city. Chattanooga, Tenn., has added 12,000 new jobs. In Macon, Ga., Mercer University will be among those getting fiber connectivity, she said. Students in the music school will be able to play quartets with New World Symphony students in Miami, a program supported by Knight Foundation that is a testament to the speed of fiber. Crawford suggests using this example of making music remotely to help people understand all applications of fiber’s benefits.

“The instant ability to be in the presence of another human being is transformative,” she said.

Universal fiber connectivity also allow such a massive amount of data to be sent and immediately shared, helping people engage more readily with government, Crawford said. In Washington, D.C., visitors to the Department of Motor Vehicles can use fiber networks to instantly rate the service of the person who helped them. In Chicago, more than 500 sensors collecting information on air quality, congestion and noise levels are expected to be in place by 2017; there are currently beta sensors near the University of Chicago. The collected data is all available to the public.

Imagine what that technology could become in our homes if fiber were universal. Each wall of the house could be interactive, Crawford suggested.

“Until we see it, we don’t understand,” she said.

Access for cities, however, doesn’t solve the lack of connectivity in rural areas and for those who can’t afford the service. With no plan for a nationwide upgrade to optic fiber, it’s unlikely universal connectivity will become a reality, Crawford said.  She urged people to lobby elected officials on the problem, calling it an issue that should be “part of the portfolio of leadership in this country.”

“Even if Google on a nationwide level builds out all of the cities it’s planning, this isn’t going to provide the upgrade the country needs,” she said.

Kristen Wile is a Charlotte, N.C.-based writer and editor. She can be reached at [email protected].