Friday, June 11, 2021

Where do most Americans without internet access live? You may be surprised.

 

In recent blog posts, we’ve explored the lack of broadband access in the United States, and described actions the federal government is taking to fix the problem.  The focus on expanded broadband access is often on the rural areas of the country, assuming that it’s mostly an infrastructure problem. 

 

A recent New York Times article looks more closely at the urban households who cannot afford access to the internet, even though the infrastructure is present in their neighborhood.  The article suggests that “some critics worry that the capital-heavy rural-first strategy could leave behind urban America, which is more populous, diverse and productive.”  It goes on to state that the total number of urban households without internet (13.6 million) is almost three times as high as the number of rural households who have no access to internet (whether they can afford it or not).  And notice that the numbers are for households, not the total number of individuals in those households.

 

Not surprisingly, the major impediment for urban households without internet access is financial.  They simply can’t afford it.  They are also overwhelmingly low income communities of color.  Which raises the politically sensitive issue of providing subsidies or otherwise regulating the pricing of internet service.

 

One urban community has taken matters into their own hands.  Three underserved neighborhoods in Detroit have benefited from the Equitable Internet Initiative, a coalition of media and tech companies and community groups that is financing and building wireless broadband networks for 50 households in each neighborhood.  Called “community technology”, this approach seeks to implement the United Nations’ declaration a few years ago that internet access is a basic human right.

 

The project uses local labor, training the residents who will benefit from the internet access in the skills needed to install and maintain the broadband network.  In 2018, its pilot year, the Equitable Internet Initiative installed broadband access into 150 homes.  In succeeding years, it has expanded into additional underserved Detroit neighborhoods.  The group is currently looking to hire a coordinator to keep the program going.

 

Another approach to making the internet accessible to all urban households is to essentially treat broadband providers as utilities, mandating that they provide a minimum level of service to everyone.  The State of New York has recently required internet providers to offer broadband service for $15/month.  The audience for this subsidized internet service is customers whose low income qualifies them for other government services like food stamps or Medicaid.

 

Universal broadband access is clearly a complicated aspiration, which will require a multi-facted set of solutions to become reality.

4 comments:

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