In November, President Biden enacted the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The $ 1.2 trillion package includes $ 65 billion for broadband access, affordability, and adoption.
It is high time: despite the pandemic drawing special attention to the divide between those with and without broadband, often referred to as the digital divide, it remains firmly entrenched. According to the Federal Communications Commission, the total number of people in the country without access to the minimum standard of Internet service is 21.3 million. Depending on how you count, however, it can be much worse: other estimates, however, range from 42 million to 157.3 million people. (This wide range of estimates is caused by the underlying data set of the FCC cards, which are self-reported by vendors and subject to excessive counting. Additionally, the FCC does not collect availability data from vendors. only when we really need the numbers describing broadband. adoption.)
This gap disproportionately affects low-income households. A June report from Pew found that 80% of white adults have adopted broadband at home, compared to 71% of black adults and 65% of Hispanic adults. FCC Broadband Deployment Report 2018 estimated that 35% of tribal land residents did not have access to broadband access speeds of 25/3 Mbps (FCC defines broadband as a minimum of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps speeds times, often referred to as 25/3 Mbps), compared to 8% in the United States overall. While the funding provided by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is historic and will certainly reduce the gap, money alone cannot bridge it. In fact, bridging the digital divide requires changes in the systems surrounding the deployment, affordability and inclusion of broadband.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act judiciously requires Internet service providers to adopt a “broadband nutrition label” or standardized format for Internet providers to disclose information on prices, incidentals, and speeds. The package also funds the new affordable connectivity program, which will provide $ 30 per month to eligible low-income households and $ 75 in tribal areas to pay for internet service. Research from the Open Technology Institute in New America, where I work, shows that Internet prices in the United States are among the highest in the world, especially in rural and tribal communities. (Disclosure: New America is a partner of Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense.) Providers who receive taxpayer funding through the Affordable Connectivity Program are required to report pricing data to the Federal Communications Commission on a regular basis. . The inclusion of a label for this program is a huge victory for transparency: US ISPs often bury service and pricing information in confusing contracts, hidden fees, and convoluted billing patterns. This requirement will help consumers understand their total cost of service and make it easier to shop by comparison. But bridging the digital divide permanently requires collecting pricing data for every provider, not just those participating in the Affordable Connectivity program.
Bridging the digital divide, especially in rural areas, will also require protecting community-owned broadband networks, which are networks owned and operated entirely by communities, or public-private partnerships, from state laws prohibiting their use. existence. Today, broadband community networks serve more than 900 communities across the country. These networks maintained by municipal governments, Indigenous nations, rural utility co-operatives and other local institutions can increase competition among providers, thereby reducing costs for consumers while providing faster connection speeds. In addition, community networks attract new businesses and improve the ability of current employers to create more jobs. A 2017 report on community-owned fiber networks showed that community broadband networks charge less for broadband service than private competitors serving the same communities. The report also found that residents of 24 areas of the United States where municipal service providers were available could save $ 20 to $ 600 per year by purchasing the municipal option, rather than other private competitors of the region. Despite the proven success of these networks, 25 states currently have laws to create barriers for municipal broadband networks; 18 of these states have explicit bans on public broadband services.
In addition to protecting and promoting municipal broadband networks to increase competition, the government should strengthen antitrust enforcement in the Internet service market. Antitrust authorities such as the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice must ensure a competitive market and block mergers that harm competition. The current US home broadband market is dominated by just four companies, the wireless market by just three. This lack of choice affects the cost and quality of Internet service. Research shows that competing at the speed of 1 Gbps (the equivalent of 1000 Mbps) results in lower prices. For plans advertised between 25 Mbps and 1,000 Mbps download speed, the competition slashes prices on average from $ 13.28 to $ 29.08 per month. This research also found that each additional provider offering 1 Gbps service in a market reduces the prices of comparable plans from $ 50 to $ 60 per month. Stricter enforcement of antitrust laws can block anti-competitive practices by suppliers, prevent damaging mergers, or break up suppliers that have outgrown them.
Bridging the digital divide in Indigenous nations requires special attention and policy development. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, which became law in December 2020, included a $ 980 million tribal broadband connectivity program to expand broadband access on tribal lands and support programs that promote the use of broadband access on indigenous nations for distance learning, telecommuting, or telehealth. In 2021, more than 280 tribes submitted funding requests totaling $ 5 billion, far exceeding the amount allocated to the program. Indigenous nations need more resources and access to the development of policies that will create solutions that meet the unique needs of their communities.
Spectrum Sovereignty is a superb example of a political solution designed with Indigenous Nations to address connectivity issues in their communities. Public waves, or spectrum, are a range of electromagnetic frequencies used to transmit and receive information. The FCC divides the spectrum into frequency “bands” and allocates the bands for purposes such as Wi-Fi, broadcasting, or mobile telephony. In 2020, the FCC opened a “priority filing window” allowing tribal communities to apply for licenses in the 2.5 GHz band before a commercial auction. This was an opportunity never before offered to Indigenous Nations, and 292 applications were accepted. Already, the Havasupai Tribe, located at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, have used their 2.5 GHz license to provide GED and community college courses to students on a reservation with a single elementary school, at a graduation rate of the 20% high school diploma, and no more. educational opportunities. Going forward, the tribe plans to use the license to increase opportunities for critical telehealth and emergency services for a tribe located in such a remote area. Additionally, representatives from tribes across the country with 2.5 GHz licenses are meeting for Tribal Wireless Bootcamps to learn how to create wireless networks that connect buildings in their communities with high speed. But the allocation of spectrum to indigenous communities does not have to end with the 2.5 GHz spectrum procedure. Every year or every two years, the FCC allocates new spectrum – and at auction or not, this is an opportunity for the prioritization of Indigenous nations. More generally, include Indigenous voices in any conversation about policy development aimed at bridging the digital divide.
Finally, the digital divide is further reinforced by a lack of ability to use technology and communicate digital information, otherwise known as digital literacy. The infrastructure package included the Digital Equity Act to provide funds to implement training programs that teach communities the skills to access digital tools and deliver the technology to people needed to access broadband services. Many initiatives directly addressing digital literacy and inclusion already exist. For example, Philadelphia’s new Digital Navigators program “helps residents better access and use technology and the Internet, from sharing information about low-cost Internet options to advice on device setup.” Digital browsers across the country are striving to help members of their communities learn how to use online services that provide advice on food aid, rent, education, employment, and more. While the programs funded by the Infrastructure Package will help support this ongoing work to ensure that all communities can understand and use technology, we can do more. A Digital Futures Foundation funded by part of the proceeds from spectrum auctions could continue work to identify and support the best methods and investments in innovation to ensure that all people can benefit from digital literacy and inclusion .
For many, the transition to life online has felt, at least technologically speaking, smooth. At the height of the pandemic, people with broadband could continue to learn remotely, see their doctors virtually, work remotely and connect with loved ones on video calls. But if it has become normal to assume that everyone has access to something as ubiquitous as the internet, that couldn’t be further than the truth.
Future Tense is a partnership between Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.