The word infrastructure can mean different things to different people. To some, infrastructure refers to the roads, railways, and other transportation systems that connect us. To others, it is the schools, hospitals, and physical buildings that are occupied by organizations that serve society.
Both are correct, given that the word infrastructure is a broad term used to describe virtually any organizational structure or facility used for the operation of society. This means that infrastructure also includes energy and technology services as well, including internet access.
After President Biden announced his infrastructure proposal, one part of the plan seemed to be to pique a lot of interest – universal broadband. Biden plans to invest $100 billion in universal broadband and obtain 100 percent broadband coverage by 2030.
High-speed internet access, or “broadband,” to the population that has always had it, may seem like a given. Household Wi-Fi connections seem ever-present and connecting to public hotspots outside of our homes is simple and easy.
The unfortunate reality, though, is that tens of millions of people lack internet service in their homes and in their communities in the United States.
Nothing has stressed this issue more than the COVID-19 pandemic, where Americans were forced to do their jobs, schooling, and social lives all online. The pandemic drove a further wedge into the already massive digital divide.
Pandemic aside, the digital divide has greatly hindered a portion of the population, particularly low-income and rural areas. For a clear and tangible example of the effects the digital divide has had on this population, according to Pew research, “17 percent of teens say they are often or sometimes unable to complete homework assignments because they do not have reliable access to a computer or internet connection.”
Last year, the FCC released the 2020 Broadband Development Report, which estimated that 18 million Americans live without access to the internet. The report articulated the figure as “only” 18 million, while proceeding to acknowledge that the figure “wildly underestimates the extent of the digital divide in this country.”
The FCC report was not without criticism. An independent review by BroadbandNow Research argued that the FCC underestimated this total, and that the actual underserved population was nearly 43 million Americans.
Additionally, The Markup stated that “the FCC data is based on census blocks and not households,” and that “not every household in that block may access that service.”
The research by The Markup demonstrates the fact that those who lack internet service may not only lack accessibility but lack affordability. While Americans in rural areas may not have access to the internet due to inadequate physical infrastructure, Americans in urban areas may not be able to afford internet service.
Internet prices in the United States cost more to the consumer than in many other countries. According to BroadbandSearch, the U.S ranks 28th out of 117 countries for most expensive service, and second in OECD countries (a group of 37 wealthy and industrial countries around the world). Jonathan Mayer, former chief technologist of the FCC, said that the expense is due to lack of competition.
Biden’s plans to address the affordability issue takes an opposite approach by including networks owned by municipalities and organizations including local governments and non-profit companies, which would be less competitive and have “less pressure to turn profits.”
The plan also seeks to level the playing field in an effort to reduce potential unfair advantages that private companies would have over municipally-owned providers.
Of course, the plan proposed is only that – a plan. Writing the plan into a bill will not only change the language of the plan, but also the details. Even after these changes, the bill must be passed by Congress. While the exact details of how the plan will address the internet issue may change when it’s written into a bill, the need to address the issue remains.
Formerly seen as a luxury, internet service is now a crucial and integral part of a functioning society. Whether it is through Biden’s proposed legislation or a different vehicle, it is time for broadband to be accessible for all Americans.