In a pandemic-plagued country, high-speed internet connections are a civil rights issue.
An adequate connection is no longer a matter of convenience; it is a necessity for anyone wishing to participate in civil society. Service is often unavailable or too expensive in rural communities and low-income neighborhoods. This has forced people into parking lots outside libraries, schools and coffee shops to find a reliable signal — while others are simply staying logged off. At the same time, there is pressure on small businesses that are still using pen and paper to modernize or face extinction. Yet, federal and local initiatives have failed to bring swift internet service to tens of millions of Americans. Like electricity, internet service has become a necessity for modern life. Efforts to fix this inequity extend back at least as far as 2009, when Congress directed the Federal Communications Commission to develop a plan to get broadband service to nearly every American.
Today, broadband is a patchwork of infrastructure and services offered primarily by major corporations like Verizon and AT&T. But swaths of the country have been left with no service, either because of a lack of perceived profits or a lack of the political will to extend fiber to harder-to-reach communities. Electrifying the entire country a century ago was made possible by a coordinated federal plan from the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt The Rural Electrification Administration brought electricity to areas outside city centers through federal loans to small cooperatives formed to bring power lines and generators to their communities. While such a centralized effort may be unlikely today without the urgency of the New Deal, the coronavirus has demonstrated that it is time for the federal government to think more creatively and to act more swiftly to deploy broadband service. Universal broadband will be costly, but shelter-in-place orders have demonstrated that it is even more costly to leave so many Americans behind.
Perhaps more daunting is the challenge of providing service that is speedy and at a price that even lower-income Americans can afford. One study found that poorer Americans can afford only $10 a month for internet service. But such service is typically at far slower speeds than what is available in more affluent neighborhoods, or for free at Starbucks. Private industry may have little desire to provide lower-tier broadband service when it can profit far more from higher-end services. The expansion of federal programs, like E-Rate, to allow schools to distribute broadband service directly to students could also help lower costs. But those solutions are not a fix to the broader problem. Drawing Wi-Fi from school buses and fast-food restaurants isn’t a long-term solution.
Doing Schoolwork in the Parking Lot Is Not a Solution