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Universal Broadband: The Perpetual Problem

March again. Marking the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US, this month is a testament to both the strength of the American people and the relentless longevity of the pandemic. More, it is a glaring reminder of the failures in the government’s response to this public health crisis. Internet access, a systemic problem that had been showing its claws before the pandemic moved everything online, became even more pertinent as widespread inequalities within broadband access and Internet equity became impossible to ignore. Though an entire year has passed since the beginning of the pandemic, many of the broadband access problems that were present last March have only worsened with the passage of time. The solutions proposed by lawmakers, while flashy and attention-grabbing, have done nothing to address the root causes of the issues of internet access and equity, a damning reflection of the ineffectiveness of the government’s reaction to the pandemic and what it means for the American people. 

Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, internet access was a persistent issue for the American public; despite the near-ubiquity of smartphones and computing devices, approximately 19 million Americans do not have access to minimum threshold speeds that qualify as broadband service, which is a rate of 25 Mbps to download and 3 Mbps to upload. This disparity follows demographic trends regarding inequality: People of color, older individuals, and those living in rural areas are more likely to be without consistent and secure internet access, and these disparities are only exacerbated by the cost barriers that  make it more difficult for these groups to purchase high-speed internet. 

For students and children, this gap is even more pronounced. 17 percent of all K-12 students in the US, many of whom are people of color and low-income, do not have reliable wireless service; these students are forced to try to complete their homework through their smartphones and tablets. These devices are simply not designed for doing schoolwork, furthering the disparity in quality of work, which has been labelled the “homework gap.”

Furthermore, there has been a consistent and ever-increasing disparity in access for urban and rural areas, as cities are more likely to have the infrastructure to provide large-scale broadband access due to relative population density. 58 percent of rural Americans say that high-speed internet access is a problem in their community, whereas the majority of those living in urban and suburban areas reported that access was not an issue. 

As with other aspects of the United States’ COVID-19 response, the majority of the burden has fallen on state and local governments to fix the problems facing their constituents. The lack of consistency caused by this anti-federalist response has led to disparities and inefficiencies in proposed solutions, with different governments drawing from different priorities and policies. As a result, local governments in rural areas have fallen to relying on flashy but ultimately unsustainable solutions to deal with the problems at hand. 

Rather than trying to deal with systemic issues, these governments have opted for short-term solutions that garner much attention without providing any fundamental relief: the Northland Pines School District in rural Wisconsin is receiving a $100,000 grant from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) to test out a drone-based system where a drone will fly 200 feet above the ground for 6 hours to provide internet access to those living in remote areas. Rather than attempting to create sustainable infrastructure to augment broadband service, WEDC is testing out a pilot program for this attention-grabbing but undeniably temporary solution for the issues of long-term internet access. 

Many state legislatures have instead turned to private companies for help, given the absence of a coordinated federal response.  In rural areas, the SpaceX Starlink satellite, an internet constellation that provides internet through a satellite network, has become an increasingly popular alternative to paying for the existing broadband system. Despite its promise, the high price of $99 per month creates a barrier for those who are low-income and its availability is limited to only a few counties. 

Even in urban areas like New York City, there are many obstacles to internet access for all. 29 percent of New Yorkers reported that they don’t have reliable broadband access, which has further contributed to education and achievement gaps, especially for children. For the city, many of the solutions have come in the form of public-private partnerships, such as the installation of wifi and broadband upgrades in the Learning Labs of 50 New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) buildings, which are primarily meant to service low-income and homeless students. 

The large diversity of regions and peoples who are affected by poor internet service and unreliable broadband access shows that this is an issue that impacts people across the country, rural and urban, red and blue states. The widespread impact of the problem of internet equity makes it a national problem, necessitating sweeping, bipartisan reform that comes from the top.  

Solutions enacted by local governments during the pandemic, regardless of whether they are effective in the short term, are not fixes for the future. In order to address the problems of internet equity in an increasingly digital world, the only possible solution is careful and well-funded infrastructure and the construction of a wide-spread and highly-accessible broadband network, something that can only be achieved through national policy. Augmenting the existing system is a possible solution; various programs run by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), such as the E-Rate and Lifeline programs, are focused on this very issue and are supposed to help fix the problems of internet accessibility and affordability. By working with the existing structures, the US could address some of the immediate concerns of internet access while laying the foundation for more permanent solutions. 

The only true, long-run solution is to create a national wireless network, one that provides universal broadband service for all citizens. Many nations, such as Switzerland and the UK have adopted some form of this policy, recognizing the key role that the internet plays in society today. While there are barriers such as size and population distribution that can hinder the development of such a system in the US, it is the only sustainable option and the only one that will truly address the inequities of the current way.

Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the world wide web, recently announced his support for universal internet access, saying that it should be a basic human right: “The consequences of this exclusion affects everyone. How many brilliant young minds fall on the wrong side of the digital divide? How many voices of would-be leaders are being silenced by a toxic internet?”

The COVID-19 pandemic has created an environment where the digital divide has forced its way to the center of a continuing conversation about what diversity and inclusivity means in this nation. The stimulus package that was passed in December 2020 included 7 billion dollars specifically meant to close part of the internet access gap. Further, the Biden Administration has shown its intentions to address this problem, as the recent appointment of Jessica Rosenworcel, someone who has prioritized the digital divide  into the leadership of an agency that has been increasingly hands-off in recent years, as acting chair of the FCC has shown. Part of the Biden campaign’s main message was their “Build Back Better” plan, which has universal broadband at the center of its proposal to solve the health and economic crises that have hit this nation. The pandemic has exposed the nation’s dire need for universal broadband, and Joe Biden and his administration must keep their promises to fix this problem for good. 

Photo: Original Illustration by Jocelyn Salim