In October 2019, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society issued Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s. The agenda was comprehensive, constructed upon achievements in communities and insights from experts across the nation. The report outlined the key building blocks of broadband policy—deployment, competition, community anchor institutions, and digital equity (including affordability and adoption). The agenda called for everyone to be able to use High-Performance Broadband by the end of the decade.
When we released the report last fall, we promised a refresh in 2020 because we knew there were issues that required additional development and more success stories that needed to be told.
What we did not know was that the world would be changed permanently by COVID-19, creating health, economic, and social crises, resulting in the worst economic setback in America in decades and unveiling a connectivity crisis that spans rural and urban places, threatening to create an even more divided America.
Before he passed, Congressman John Lewis told us, “Access to the Internet … is the civil rights issue of the 21st century.” There are almost three times as many people without broadband in urban/metro places than in rural places,3 and lack of broadband adoption is greater among Black, Hispanic, and lower-income households. Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, joined by civil rights leaders, explained, “Our historic failure to close the digital divide has had a devastating effect on communities of color in both rural and urban America.”
High-Performance Broadband available to everyone in America is an important ingredient for a more just America, a healthier society, and an economy that offers true opportunity for everyone.
As we near the end of 2020, we need to inject a new sense of urgency into implementing equitable broadband policies.
We should construct broadband policy based on the ways people use broadband, and that has changed drastically.
New ambitions have grown out of past analysis:
- Digital Equity: Making affordable High-Performance Broadband available to low-income, unserved, and underserved populations—accompanied by training in digital skills that empowers users to make the most of their connections—will contribute to a more equitable society.
- Deployment: In a world in which the talents of all people matter, broadband infrastructure investment is a necessary economic strategy. There is no reason to saddle any rural and urban area with second-rate broadband.
- Competition: Americans should not have to pay more (in dollars, in sacrificed quality, or in delayed innovation) merely because public policy has failed to promote competition effectively.
- Community Anchor Institutions: Using broadband to fulfill their missions, these institutions should be able to reach users wherever they are—from dining room tables to spare bedrooms to parking lots—and serve as launching pads for communitywide access.
This essay offers our key recommendations by describing the likely pattern of changing broadband usage once the present crisis recedes, and by emphasizing how federal, state, tribal, and local governments should work together to implement a comprehensive broadband agenda.
The strength of High-Performance Broadband is that it will—if fully accessible to all in America—help solve some of our most critical challenges and help people overcome key barriers regardless of where they live and who they are.
Last year we asked you to imagine each community enabled to identify and build on its strengths and employ technology accordingly.
This year we say we can’t wait any longer to make it happen. We must start addressing at-home internet access as a civil rights emergency in need of a comprehensive solution. We ask for Broadband for America Now since our current crises demand it.