Anne Schwieger, Boston’s broadband and digital equity advocate, explains: “Broadband is best understood as an ecology that allows places and people to adapt, evolve, and create.” But for too many people, the digital skills needed to use broadband effectively are too elusive. Governments—with nonprofits, private broadband providers, and community support—are working to ensure that broadband is not just deployed but used. That’s a multifaceted effort that depends on trust and resources.
This week we learned that the Federal Communications Commission will vote on its latest plan to subsidize broadband deployment in rural areas at its January meeting. The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, first proposed by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai back in August, will provide up to $20.4 billion over the next decade to support the deployment of broadband networks in those parts of rural America that currently lack fixed broadband service that meets the FCC's baseline speed standards (25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload).
Broadband’s fundamental value doesn’t come from connecting computers to networks; its value comes from connecting people to opportunity, and society to new solutions. When a broadband network is available but a person who wants to use it can’t do so, then the network is less valuable to everyone else who does use it. That's because the he benefits of broadband adoption do not flow only to the people who are new broadband users. Expanding broadband usage can grow the U.S. economy broadly. Expanding broadband usage, furthering civic engagement, can build stronger democratic institutions.
High-Performance Broadband delivers opportunities and strengthens communities. In the Digital Age, open, affordable, robust broadband is the key to all of us reaching for — and achieving — the American Dream. But since the mid-1990s, the U.S. has struggled with a persistent dilemma called the digital divide — the unfortunate reality that for too many people, meaningful connectivity is out of reach.
There was no "Mr. Watson, come here – I want to see you" moment; instead, 50 years ago in 1969, there was an attempt to login on ARPANET that ended after "lo" because of a system crash. That inauspicious moment led to our connected world of 2019, a time when more than 4 billion people have internet access, and the number of devices connected to internet networks is more than double the global population. But for all the internet's impact, for all those devices, and even though so many have access, too many people remain unconnected.
Home broadband subscription rates continue to lag in rural areas, holding back local economies and access to telemedicine. The deployment of broadband networks to rural areas echoes the challenges earlier generations had ensuring that electrical networks and telephone service reached everyone. The solutions those earlier generations employed provide us lessons for today’s broadband challenges. Through the 1930s, many power companies ignored rural areas of the nation even when the federal government offered loans to serve these sparsely populated areas.
My theme today – what is going unnoticed. Simply put, we should pay more attention to the lack of competition in the provision of fixed broadband to homes and small businesses. As a general matter, we can expect people with only one choice to pay monopoly prices, and people with only two to pay the higher prices typically charged by duopolies. People with three or more choices typically pay less. Clearly, people who can barely afford to pay a competitive price, say, low-income Americans, are particularly vulnerable to artificially high prices.
In communities where too many people have no access to broadband infrastructure, investing in connections to community anchor institutions is an intermediate step that can pay huge public dividends. Imperial County, located in the sparsely populated desert region of southeastern California, is an exciting example. When relying on a single telecommunications provider and its outdated technology, Imperial County school districts, higher-education institutions, and government agencies had limited access to broadband infrastructure.
Broadband networks do not reach millions of people in the United States. And this lack of access has a significant impact.