Democrats promote internet access, but affordability is the big issue

Democrats promote internet access, but affordability is the big issue
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Senate Democrats recently released the newest component of their economic agenda, A Better Deal: Universal High Speed Internet, focusing on the need for better internet access for all Americans, particularly those in rural America who have long lacked services.

The thrust of the proposal is a set of incentives to get internet providers to bid on last-mile broadband infrastructure funded by the federal government — a proposal which harkens back to FDR’s program providing federal loans for the installation of electricity in rural American communities during the 1930’s.

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I commend the Democrats for thinking about broadband as a critical infrastructure issue that needs to be addressed now. As the Roosevelt Institute and The New School write in our new report, Wired: Connecting Equity to a Universal Broadband Strategy, high-speed internet is fundamental to full participation in today’s economy. Fast, affordable internet access is so necessary that more and more people consider it a public utility, similar to water, electricity, telephone lines, and gas. It is unacceptable that 55 million Americans do not have high-speed internet at home today.

However, there is definite room for improvement in the Better Deal plan. First, the Democrats should address the issue of broadband affordability — not just broadband access. To bring down costs, Democrats should heed their own anti-trust agenda from earlier this summer by cracking down on internet monopolies charging everyday Americans astronomical rates. Without making internet affordable, providing the infrastructure to sell it does little good for households across the country.

Second, the Democrats should recognize that both rural and urban areas have been historically left out of crucial investments. By broadening the focus of their plan, they could appeal to a broader audience. Addressing these two issues would not only result in better policy, it would make for better politics, a broader constituency, and more unity among groups that our post-election discourse pits against one another.

First, let’s turn to the affordability issue. The biggest hurdle to universal broadband is cost, not availability of service. While 5 percent of people without home internet cite lack of service available, 33 percent of households without internet cite affordability as their chief barrier.

The ability for individuals to afford internet is directly related to the amount of competition in the telecommunications market. How many of us have found ourselves dissatisfied with our slow internet speeds and high monthly bills, only to find out that we didn’t have the option to switch to another provider? This happens all across the country precisely because Internet Service Providers (ISPs) were granted monopolies by the government, but never followed through on their promise to build out their networks.

Monopoly power — by definition — gives firms the ability to raise prices above those in a competitive market. As a result, our monthly internet bills are sky high.

Luckily, Democrats already have a great plan to address broadband affordability: their own robust anti-trust agenda from earlier this summer. Bringing together their anti-trust and broadband plans would prevent telecommunications firms from continuing to monopolize the industry (one of the least competitive in the U.S. economy). Robust regulation of the telecommunications sector would make firms currently behaving in a monopolistic way to compete for customers — resulting in lower prices and better services. Rather than subsidizing ISPs to harness monopoly profits from rural users, Democrats would be attacking the problem at the source — the monopoly power these firms hold in the market.

Moreover, the rhetorical focus on rural communities ignores many of the people who are most hurt by the digital divide. As we write in Wired, it is important to recognize that for low-income communities of color in urban areas, residential segregation and monopoly power are parallel forces that create digital inequities. Talking explicitly about the needs of urban communities – and creating the policies to address them – is an important component in achieving the goal of connecting all Americans to high speed internet.

Access to affordable broadband is desperately needed across the United States – in rural and urban communities alike. Luckily, the Democrats are on the right track. Broadband is a policy that can benefit those living in remote or sparsely populated areas and in densely concentrated urban communities.

The Democrats already have the tools they need in their own anti-trust agenda to help close the digital divide between communities across America, and more inclusive broadband messaging and policy provides an opportunity for Democrats to unite rural white and urban communities of color under a truly populist economic agenda that benefits both constituencies.

This is a rare moment when better policy results in better politics – and I encourage Democrats not to let it pass them by.

Rakeen Mabud is the program director of the 21st Century Economy and Economic Inclusion programs at the Roosevelt Institute, and tweets @rakeen_RI. She is a co-author of “Wired: Connecting Equity to a Universal Broadband Strategy.”