Internet Inequity in the US
Buffering & Disconnected
To many, the internet seems ubiquitous. Instant access to the entire history of the world can fit snugly in your pocket. However, not everyone enjoys equal levels of affordability, speed, and accessibility. Disparities in cost, connectivity, and choice have fractured the United States at a pivotal moment: the dawn of the Digital Age. How much longer can we go without widespread, affordable, and reliable internet access when COVID-19 has made remote connectivity essential?
Expediting Society’s Transition Online
COVID-19 has forced many to work, learn, and socialize remotely more than ever before. Widespread uncertainty and rampant unemployment throughout this society-wide transition online has forced people to wonder both what the “new normal” will look like and when it will materialize.
Regardless of what exactly the “new normal” will look like, it is safe to assume that reliance on the internet will be a major factor. Household internet usage boomed 25% at the outset of the pandemic. There are four major components to this behavioral change:
- E-commerce is further progressing into the shopping experience of choice. Consumers have been either wary or unable to engage in in-person shopping.
- The rise of the “Attention Economy” requires consumer engagement that can only be accomplished on digital platforms.
- 37% of US jobs— almost half of all US wages — can be performed entirely at home.
- Schools are engaging in hybrid or fully remote learning.
On Long Island, time spent at home has steadied at 8% above pre-pandemic levels.
Long Islanders are also visiting their workplaces 26% less frequently compared to before the pandemic.
These numbers from Long Island are likely representative of the United States at large. People are staying home, but work and school must go on. How we accomplish the basics of employment and education must adapt to the “remote revolution.” This adaptation can only be successful if everyone has access to affordable and reliable internet connections.
Haves and Have Nots
Many people expect and rely on their internet connections to be fast and reliable. Without fast and reliable internet, it can be frustrating or simply impossible to accomplish whatever it is you’re trying to do online.
Depending on where you live — something that is closely correlated to your financial situation —a speedy and consistent internet connection can either be taken for granted or wishful thinking. The rapid acceleration of adopting technology-oriented solutions during COVID-19 has created a connectivity chasm, ostracizing many in an increasingly digital society.
Appalachian West Virginia, for example, is a region that has fallen behind in internet connectivity compared to more developed, often coastal regions.
One student in West Virginia has to use her high school’s WiFi while sitting in the school’s parking lot. Another student has had to ride his ATV across mountains to use his uncle’s faster internet. These obstacles to simply pursuing an education highlight an internet connection disparity that is not unique to West Virginia. This disparity disproportionately affects rural regions like Appalachian West Virginia, but the divide spans the nation. Children should not be excluded from education because of sparse internet connection.
Frontier Communications, one of the largest internet providers for rural America, received $1 billion from the FCC five years ago to expand its offerings in more remote areas. In April, the company filed for bankruptcy.
In May, the US House of Representatives passed a COVID-19 relief bill that included $4 billion in broadband infrastructure development. This funding would build better connections for students and healthcare providers, but the bill has not been taken up in the Senate.
Back in January, the Federal Communications Commission approved $20 billion for rural broadband expansion. Democratic Presidential Nominee Joe Biden “plans a $20 billion investment in rural broadband infrastructure and to triple funding to expand access in rural areas, as part of a package his team proposed to pay for through tax increases on wealthy Americans.”
This sort of investment would bring meaningful resources to areas struggling to stay digitally connected. As of 2018, the US had the highest number of citizens enjoying a gigabit internet connection with 56.4 million people connected to high-speed internet. However, that was only about 17% of the population.
For comparison, South Korea in 2018 had the second highest number of citizens with gigabit connections with 46.7 million people connected. This total, however, accounted for 93% of the country’s population. In 2011, South Korean investment across several internet-related projects (including gigabit connection) over a four year time span was $24.6 billion.
What’s the Holdup?
As South Korea’s actions demonstrate, injecting capital toward the development of high speed internet can connect a country’s citizens. So, what is preventing the United States from prioritizing similar investments?
One possible explanation is the $101 million that private internet service providers (ISPs) contributed to members of Congress from 1989 to 2017. Both Democrats and Republicans have willingly accepted these contributions. AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon collectively accounted for roughly 46% of all contributions during this period.
According to “The Book of Broken Promises,” ISPs have successfully swindled both the government and the American people. They promised to build a cutting-edge fiber optic network throughout the country that would improve internet speeds and accessibility. To fund this, ISPs charged American households between $180–$230 per year from 1992–2014. This $400 billion fundraising scheme should have been more than enough to embark on a federal broadband initiative, especially considering South Korea’s $24.6 billion price tag over a four year span.
Making matters worse, legal roadblocks either ban or impede the ability of municipalities to create their own broadband networks in 22 states. Not only is the greed of private telecommunications companies influencing Congress and overcharging Americans, but states, cities, and villages throughout the country aren’t even allowed to pursue a public option to generate a competitive alternative.
70% of Americans agree that local governments should at least have the ability to invest in their own high-speed networks. It’s not too often 70% of Americans can agree on something, and this issue is bipartisan; the Digital Age demands connectivity, so access to an affordable, fast, and reliable service should be a top priority for any administration.
How To Fix The Internet
America has an internet problem, and we need to address it as soon as possible. The Digital Age requires action, and the geopolitical ramifications of inaction could be too dire to ignore.
There are 4 solutions that could expedite country-wide internet equality in a relatively short amount of time:
1. Federal Funding
Top-down investment in high-speed broadband is essential for bringing high speed internet to fruition. South Korea has shown that this is the case.
While subsidizing municipal broadband was only favored by 44% of US adults in 2017, such an investment is needed. Municipalities often must maintain balanced budgets. Opportunities to increase tax revenues to fund programs like broadband access are not common.
COVID-19 has accelerated technological adoption. Work-from-home and virtual schooling have become the norm, and other countries are pulling ahead with regard to internet connectivity and AI. The US can no longer delay making universal internet access a top priority. The “new normal” requires it.
2. Municipal Broadband
While Americans generally agree that the federal government should not subsidize municipal broadband, they agree that it should at least be an option for municipalities to pursue.
The Community Broadband Act of 2018 would allow just that.
Granting municipalities the opportunity to determine the efficacy of broadband as a utility for themselves and their residents would go a long way toward driving competition among ISPs.
Creating a public internet option to compete against private ISPs will force innovation, better connection speeds — speeds that aren’t just promised, but delivered — and a focus on affordability. Regional ISP monopolies would no longer be able to charge any price or maintain buffering-at-best speeds.
Chattanooga, Tennessee has demonstrated that US cities can provide affordable, fast, and reliable broadband through the Electric Power Board (EPB) of Chattanooga. Currently, residents of Chattanooga can purchase 1 GB download/upload speeds through the EPB for $67.99/month. For comparison, your monthly bill in New York City for the same download/upload speed through Spectrum would cost you $109.99/month.
For a city of roughly 150,000, Chattanooga’s municipal broadband project came with a $330 million price tag. The initiative received $105 million in federal funding, and the rest came from bonds.
Since the EPB began rolling out its municipal broadband, the city’s unemployment rate halved, its wage rate increased, and the fiber optic network can reach every home. Chattanooga exemplifies that cities, towns, and villages across the country can play a major role in fixing internet inequality themselves if they have the opportunity and resources to do so.
3. State-Wide Initiatives
If the federal government refuses to take up the challenge of a country-wide broadband initiative, and if municipalities cannot obtain the funding necessary to take on the job themselves, then it should be incumbent on states to step up to the plate.
Physically separated by international boarders and remote wilderness, Alaska decided to take matters into its own hands. In May 2019, the 49th state began to connect itself to the contiguous United States with an all-terrestrial fiber network with an initial capacity of 100 terabits per second.
In May 2020, the project has been completed. Nearly 300 miles long and providing speeds as promised, the MTA Fiber network can expand its capacity as demand grows in the future. This type of foresight and immediate action will bode well for Alaska, its people, and its economy.
4. Societal Buy-In To Private Innovation & Internet-As-A-Utility
Elon Musk’s SpaceX is currently in the midst of completing its Starlink initiative. SpaceX rocket ships are placing satellites in low orbit to provide low latency broadband to more remote regions of the US and the world.
Starlink’s demonstrated fast speeds in initial tests is sure to drive competition within the private ISP market. This pseudo worldwide-WiFi, barring unforeseen setbacks that coincide with any futuristic innovation, could be just the private sector shake up that the telecommunications industry needed.
Continued FCC support is necessary for Starlink to achieve its goals. However, the US cannot sit idly by awaiting technological breakthroughs like Starlink to push the envelope. Innovation needs investment, and that can most effectively be delivered from Washington D.C.
Why it Matters
Unchecked greed on behalf of ISPs like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon has shortchanged and misled Americans. Unfettered lobbying on Capitol Hill has shown politicians 101 million reasons to maintain the status quo, thereby preventing municipalities the chance to invest in their own solutions.
Breakthroughs For Some
Technological advancements in the spaces of blockchain protocols, digital currencies — the US is already exploring a national digital currency with MIT’s help — and quantum computing will create unprecedented value for those guiding the ship. These innovations require internet access to reap the rewards. A societal bifurcation between the internet Haves and Have Nots could create a chasm that further polarizes politics and dismantles real world relationships.
If internet access is not widespread, affordable, fast, and reliable soon, then, on a global level, the US will be kneecapped in its efforts to remain an influential superpower. On the community and human level, the real and unfortunate losers would disproportionately be lower income Americans who the government decided to leave behind.
Low income students could be relegated to completing homework on their parent’s cell phone using data, going to Starbucks every time they need WiFi, or simply resigning to not doing homework. The hurdle of internet access can stunt the personal development and educational progression of those who would benefit the most from a simple opportunity to succeed.
Prioritize The People
90% of part-time businesses rely on the internet. More than half wouldn’t be able to continue without the internet, so 6.6 million jobs and a $141 billion in revenue are at stake. (These numbers are from a 2013 report; the ramifications are likely much higher given how much more pervasive the internet has become since then.)
Improved access to high-speed internet is correlated with higher median income and lower unemployment, both of which Chattanooga has already demonstrated after rolling out the EPB. By treating internet access as a utility rather than a commodity, local economies could experience a windfall that improves the lives of many. Pursuing any initiative that aims to reduce unemployment and raise wages would be a boon to the American people.
Benefits would be proportionally greater for rural and southern areas that currently exist in a collective state of digital isolation. This is based on the combination of their low average internet speeds, lower median incomes, higher unemployment, and lower performances in education.
In the Digital Age, the internet is a prerequisite for employment and education. During COVID-19, the Opioid Crisis has intensified and depression rates have tripled. Struggling to adapt to life during a public health crisis, political strife, and a barren job market, many in the US have experienced a degradation of their mental health.
Providing affordable and reliable connectivity for Americans across the country would grant opportunity to those who need it most. The proliferation of technological innovation and its benefits cannot be consolidated to the coasts; the United States needs to invest in all people. Work-from-home, remote learning, and even leisure time are all made possible through the internet, and our “new normal” demands this change.
It’s time to think ahead and act now so America and its people don’t continue to fall further behind.