Saturday, February 27, 2021

Universal Broadband: A Worthy Aspiration Whose Time Has Come


Several of our blog posts over the past year have highlighted the digital divide in the US (and around the world), and the Covid pandemic has prompted some creative solutions.  (Read here, here, here and here)  Watching a NPR Nightly News segment on the issue two days ago got me to thinking … why don’t we treat internet access like electricity?  A necessary utility, made available to all at a reasonable cost?


In the 1930’s, the US was in a similar situation about electricity.  Most rural areas didn’t have it, and their economies and populations suffered greatly as a result.  President Theodore Roosevelt created the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in 1935, which brought electricity to virtually all remote areas of the continental US by 1960. 


The REA’s electricity distribution network then leveraged the expansion of telephone lines across the country. 


Universal broadband (the phrase generally used to describe internet-for-all) is not a new idea.  It’s been debated for decades.  Universal broadband legislation was introduced in the last session of Congress.  The Covid pandemic and associated online learning challenges across the nation may provide the catalyst and political tipping point for finally bringing universal broadband to reality. 


An estimated 18 million Americans, mostly living in rural areas, have no access to the internet (although there is not consensus on that number, and it may as much as twice as high).  And even among urban Americans, where internet access is available, many low income residents can’t afford it (and therefore can’t actually access the internet).   Meaning, there are two basic issues that need to be dealt with:  (1) providing the infrastructure for universal high speed broadband access, and (2) regulating the monthly rates to ensure universal and equitable access.


Many proposals are floating out there to cover the cost of building the additional needed infrastructure, mostly in rural areas:

·      Our phone bills purport to include a fee to support universal broadband (although fewer and fewer phone calls are being made, which reduces the income from this fee).

·      Federal and state funding (loans and outright grants) will likely provide the bulk of the initial construction/ development costs.  The FCC and other federal agencies already provide such funding, but not in the necessary amounts to cover the entire country.  States like mine also include line items for rural broadband access in their annual budgets, but these are likewise not at fully adequate levels.


Our federal agencies will need to develop a plan that envisions the complete infrastructure necessary, and funding will need to be found from multiple sources (Congress, state and local governments, charitable foundations) to ensure that the infrastructure is put in place.


There are also multiple ways to address the affordability of internet access, once the infrastructure is in place.  Internet providers could be required to provide low-cost options as a condition of their license to operate (with the proviso that the speed and quality access provided by low-cost options is adequate to fully access online learning).   Internet service could become a regulated utility, where the providing company is guaranteed a minimum level of profit in exchange for providing full access to all potential users.  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) just this week approved an emergency subsidy for low-income families to get internet service.  This will provide much-needed, but short-term, assistance.


We do not lack for ideas about how to make universal broadband happen.  And the historic expansion of electricity and telephone into virtually all areas of the US provide examples of success.  What we need now are ideological courage, political will, adequate funding, and speedy implementation.


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