When it unveiled its National Broadband Plan in 2010, the Federal Communications Commission said every American should have access to affordable and robust broadband service by 2020, along with “the means and skills to subscribe.” . It was the right goal; as the COVID-19 pandemic has made painfully obvious, broadband is essential not only for economic growth and productivity, but also for equal access to education, employment, healthcare health and a range of opportunities.
Eleven years later, however, as many as 42 million Americans, most of whom live in rural or remote areas, lack broadband. About three times that number can’t afford to hang on to the lines that come down their streets. Microsoft studied internet connection data last year and found that nearly half of the country does not connect at high speed. This must change.
There has been some progress over the past decade, certainly. Cable and phone companies have invested heavily in their networks, dramatically increasing average connection speeds – for those who have them. Urged on by regulators, some of the largest network operators are making low-cost versions of broadband available to low-income households. To its credit, Comcast continued its very profitable Internet Essentials service long after it had to, and it doubled the download speed.
Yet the gaps persist, even in a state as tech-friendly as California. A recent survey by USC and the California Emerging Technology Fund found that about 1 in 7 households in the state were not online or connected only through a smartphone.
A fundamental problem is the huge fixed cost of building and maintaining broadband networks, which makes them unprofitable in areas with low population or low demand. The government helped finance construction, but the results were often networks that did not keep up with ever-increasing demand. The FCC’s most recent effort, in December, awarded $ 9.2 billion over 10 years for rural broadband, though some observers doubt the providers that won the grants will keep their promises. .
However, much more public money will have to be spent if we are to give every American an equal chance to benefit from the services and opportunities that the Internet offers. And there is bipartisan support for a huge investment in broadband – President Biden offered $ 100 billion in his initial infrastructure plan, a group of Congressional Democrats have a $ 94 billion proposal, and four Republicans. of the Senate suggested $ 65 billion.
However, to get a better return on the taxpayer’s investment, there must be conditions attached to the money. If taxpayers want to help build a network, it’s reasonable to demand more proof that the builder is qualified, can meet the ever-increasing demand for bandwidth, and can keep the price going for customers, or at least offer discounts. for low prices. income households.
In addition, networks must be able to support multiple people per household who simultaneously take online classes, participate in video conferences, and connect to servers – as do families with good broadband connections for a year. . Not having access or having the means to do so not only hinders individual families, but also the country as a whole. It is a question of equal rights and an economic imperative.
High prices are the number one reason cited by those who do not sign up for broadband service. Congress offered a temporary fix in the latest COVID-19 relief bill, putting $ 3.2 billion in a $ 50- $ 75-per-month subsidy for Americans with very low incomes or who have lost their jobs during the pandemic. But once the money runs out, broadband providers will still face little or no real competition, and no pressure to lower their prices.
This is why it makes sense for the government to encourage competition through alternatives to local cable and telephone monopolies. The FCC recently gave schools and libraries the power to use $ 7.2 billion in federal grants to provide broadband service beyond their parking lots. But these institutions should also be allowed to create their own networks, rather than working with existing service providers. Other companies with their own networks, such as electric utilities, should be encouraged to leverage their resources to provide broadband to the public.
California Governor Gavin Newsom has called for using $ 7 billion in federal COVID relief to improve broadband services here, including a state-funded “middle mile” network that all providers do. Internet access could use to connect their local customers to major Internet hubs. It’s a good idea that several other states have used to allow more companies to offer broadband service, both in underserved areas and in competition with existing providers.
And regulators should think creatively about the subsidies now being given for “vital” telephone service. A laudable proposition comes from the Lewis Latimer plan commissioned by the National Urban League, which suggests pairing broadband grants with unemployment benefits, Medicaid and other government programs to reach populations with acute need for online services.
It is high time for us to stop relying on current subsidy mechanisms and existing broadband providers to solve the dual issue of access and affordability – they don’t have the right incentives or, in many cases, , the good economy. As elected officials prepare for a massive investment in broadband, they must seek new ways to achieve long-term solutions with better returns. The goal is the same today as it was 11 years ago, but as the pandemic has shown, the need is much more acute.
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