One thing the pandemic has demonstrated – if we didn’t already believe it – is that internet access is essential to modern life. Work, school, healthcare, connecting to other people in general – how we’ve gotten through lockdowns and quarantines would have been completely impossible without sufficient internet being widely available today. But we’re still working on making the internet more accessible to all.
When it comes to living modern life, access to the internet has become as essential as access to electricity and running water. Maybe once considered a luxury, we all need good internet access to do almost anything required of us during the global pandemic. In the U.S., the question has been asked over the last few years: is the internet a right or a privilege? In early 2020, the estimated number of Americans without internet access was 25 million, and somewhere around 90 million people didn’t have access to sufficient high speed internet, a significant roadblock with the coronavirus pandemic forcing us to change how we live our daily lives.
Being hit with COVID forced many people to look at this problem more seriously and reconsider the internet as a utility. Earlier in 2021, the Biden administration had promised to make broadband affordable and available to all, with a proposed $100 billion effort to connect every rural and low-income home to high-speed internet service. And just this month, a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill was finally passed by the U.S. Senate, which the federal government had been squabbling over for months. Of this, $65 billion will be devoted to funding broadband. Though not quite as much as the original proposed $100 billion, this move has still been widely praised across the telecommunications industry, though certain big providers are convinced they’ll take a hit from the effort to tackle digital redlining.
Broadband redlining is a huge issue in the U.S. today. The areas that can’t get high-speed internet access in U.S. cities are those same neighborhoods that couldn’t get mortgage loans in the 1940’s. For context, 1930’s American banks drew up maps to withhold loans from “high risk, undesirable inhabitants.” This, over the decades, also affected decisions to build essential businesses like supermarkets in these areas, and access to insurance services and healthcare was limited. Redlining was made illegal in 1968, but the damage had been done. Today, when it comes to broadband, the echoes of redlining still live on. Poorer communities often have no internet, or internet that is so slow it’s almost useless for the activities required by the pandemic, while still costing residents as much as it does for those who live in wealthier areas.
The 2021 infrastructure bill acknowledges and aims at tackling the problem of digital redlining. It’s a step in the right direction, though it comes over a year late into the global pandemic. Priority will be given to projects focused on connecting underserved areas and high-poverty areas to the internet.
A 2019 Pew Research Center study found that half of the people who did not have broadband connection could not afford it, while only 7 percent claimed lack of access as the reason. So achieving universal internet access will require a permanent subsidy service available to low-income families, which wasn’t something that polled well among Americans in the past. Just a few months ago, however, an emergency discount was finally offered to low-income households for high-speed internet services and devices to get online: the emergency broadband benefit program. But as this effort was a one-time emergency fund, the passage of the infrastructure bill will hopefully be able to make lasting and meaningful change in getting people online.
The $65 billion will include a few big programs and grants. $42 billion will be invested in a Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, to provide grants to bridge the digital divide by getting broadband to underserved areas. Each of the 50 states and other U.S. territories will be receiving at least $100 million for this goal. A $1 billion grant will be invested in Middle Mile Infrastructure for broadband infrastructure which “does not connect directly to an end-user location.” And $14 billion will be allocated to an Affordable Connectivity subsidy program, which is an extension of the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. $167 million in grants will fuel rural broadband projects across a dozen states.
The passage of this historic bill is a big deal: it’s a once-in-a-generation, bipartisan infrastructure bill unlike anything that’s been passed in recent years. In addition to expanding high-speed internet, the spending for roads, public transit, clean drinking water, and climate change measures is aimed to to improve the lives of current and future generations of Americans. It will be the largest federal investment in public transit, clean drinking water, and clean energy ever, and contains the explicitly stated goal of ensuring every American has access to reliable high-speed internet. This echoes a similar goal from about 100 years ago, when the federal government made the historic effort to provide every American with electricity.
As Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack puts it, “Generations ago, the federal government recognized that without affordable access to electricity, Americans couldn’t fully participate in modern society and the modern economy. Broadband internet is the new electricity. It is necessary for Americans to do their jobs, to participate equally in school learning and health care, and to stay connected.”
Though this is what the U.S. is up to this year, the issue of internet connectivity extends worldwide. Around 3.5 billion people don’t have reliable access to the internet. The digital divide creates a problem for nearly every country in the world – and it’s going to take a lot of effort, and a lot of funding, to fix it.