Technology Policy Institute
Access and Impacts: Exploring how internet access at home and online training shape people’s online behavior and perspectives about their lives
Internet access for Americans has taken on new urgency since the pandemic. Prior to it, many people without a home broadband connection could manage, perhaps using a smartphone for web surfing or taking a computer to the library to use Wi-Fi for more data-intensive applications. But the pandemic exposed the limits of wireless data plans for schoolwork or working from home, as well as the severe consequences of having limited or no access to the internet at home.
US broadband policy has emphasized the importance of facilities-based competition given its potential to encourage investment, improve quality, and lower prices. A natural question to ask today is whether this competition can encourage more adoption. Using Census-tract-level data from the Federal Communications Commission and the American Community Survey (ACS) from 2017-2019, Wallsten finds that competition between cable and fiber does not seem to bring the last group of unconnected people online.
California’s net neutrality law, which a federal district court upheld in February, is already wading into the regulatory morass that brought down past regulatory regimes charged with maintaining neutrality in rail transport and energy.
Since 2014, the Federal Communications Commission has collected detailed price data on nearly 24,000 broadband plans through its “Urban Rate Survey.” The FCC uses the survey data to “determine the reasonable comparability benchmarks for fixed voice and broadband rates for universal service purposes.” The presence of this data and analysis of it yield three conclusions:
The pandemic has caused the U.S. to take seriously the question of how to make sure all residents have broadband access for remote learning, telehealth, government services, work, job training, and other activities necessary to participate fully in society. Unfortunately, the calls to define broadband as a connection offering symmetric, 100 Mbps download and 100 Mbps upload bandwidth (100/100) are arbitrary, with no evidence supporting these numbers. Every application commonly used for key services, as well as popular entertainment streaming services, rely on far less than 100 Mbps.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of broadband connections and the ways that not being connected can worsen inequality. While policymakers struggle to find effective methods of increasing adoption, the pandemic itself appears to have helped make some strides in closing the divide. Specifically, based on data from the largest ISPs’ quarterly 10Q SEC filings, the upward trend in the number of fixed line connections accelerated once the pandemic began, as the figure below shows.
Twelve years ago, the federal government awarded hundreds of grants for broadband infrastructure with stimulus funds from the Recovery Act of 2009. In this study, Oh reviews the subsidy allocations from the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program and compare actual outcomes with those that a reverse auction or random lottery may have yielded. The analysis shows that a reverse auction might have connected nearly twice as many buildings for the same total subsidy dollars relative to the results from the grant review process.