COVID-19 proves we need to continue upgrading America’s broadband infrastructure

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Everything from meetings at the office to happy hours with friends are all now occurring in digital space. All of this internet use is putting more pressure on our broadband infrastructure. Just in the past few weeks, data demands have risen in nearly all categories. The previous peak has become the new average, and the surge is starting to threaten the quality and speed of content downloads. As shelter-in-place directives spread and demand increases, the question lingers of whether our broadband infrastructure can support the new normal. Even while internet users often pay for service they don’t need, our internet infrastructure threatens to be insufficient in this time of crisis. How should policymakers reconcile these opposing truths? To start, it’s important to understand that the definition of “need” is evolving. We must better understand how to build networks and policies that respond to large influxes in demand. Three important factors about network deployments should influence the current policy debates:

  1. While many industrial processes increase in incremental, constant steps, networks largely improve through big transitions to next-generation technologies.
  2. Networks should be built for peaks, not averages.
  3. The real upside for the economy and society comes with new applications that will take advantage of the increased bandwidth. 

We have an opportunity to explore what we can do with today’s broadband capabilities. While the crisis will teach many important lessons about our networks and their coverage, it would be a waste not to reexamine how we can improve our economy, our society, and critical public goods by better utilizing the abundant bandwidth we have while once again preparing for a future that’s more online than ever.

[Blair Levin is a nonresident senior fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings. He serves as the executive director of Gig.U: The Next Generation Network Innovation Project, an initiative of three dozen leading research university communities seeking to support educational and economic development by accelerating the deployment of next generation networks.]

COVID-19 proves we need to continue upgrading America’s broadband infrastructure