The Geography of Digital Access

By Melanie Wood

As part of their fellowship term, each bcFELLOW declares a public interest area for study. Themes such as density, connectivity, public space, practice, equity or others are explored.  Over the course of the fellowship year, each Fellow will share discoveries made during their investigations with final work published for public benefit.

Areas of Dallas with no wired broadband service or only one provider.  National Broadband Map . US Dept of Commerce, National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Areas of Dallas with no wired broadband service or only one provider. National Broadband Map. US Dept of Commerce, National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

How do local choices in digital connectivity shape both the way we access knowledge and our interactions with the city as a whole?

A little more than a year ago in the wake of the Arab Spring, the United Nations issued a report declaring internet access to be a human right.¹ Although this assertion was initially intended as a response to government interference with existing access in the face of civil unrest, a lack of affordable choices for internet service creates an equally problematic barrier. While widespread agreement on the internet’s status as a right remains uncertain, few would argue the internet’s capacity to expand the information and opportunities available to individuals, families, and communities.

Historically, universal service, the process of extending critical infrastructure like electricity and telephone service at comparable pricing to all areas of the country, played a major role in the physical and economic development of the United States. However, numerous factors, including shifting performance expectations, evolving technologies and a market-driven expansion model, make achieving universal internet service a more difficult proposition.

Dallas, a city that features both the world headquarters of AT&T and pronounced, geographically-compartmentalized economic disparity, is in many ways an ideal location to study the interplay between the physical, economic and social factors that shape our interactions with the internet and, in turn, the city as a whole. This research effort seeks to document access to and quality of digital connectivity in Dallas, including local infrastructure, affordability and availability; understand how people are accessing and using digital services; and explore methods to enhance digital access among communities with limited options for internet service in Dallas.

1. UN Human Rights Council. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. 16 May 2011.

Melanie Wood, a 2011 and 2012 bcFELLOW, is from Indiana and is interested in design, fiction, mapping, and the democratization of technologies.