The US needs a broadband reboot
If you’re like me, you may have been hoping for a little less screen time this fall. But the reality of the ongoing COVID pandemic means that many of us must continue to work virtually, enter classrooms remotely and engage with the world through broadband internet service.
Now more than ever, access to reliable and affordable broadband is a necessity of daily life. But throughout the country, there are millions of households without a dependable connection. That means there are millions of children who won’t have access to their online classrooms and resources. There are millions of elderly individuals who will have to go to a physical location, potentially putting themselves in danger, because they aren’t able to access a virtual doctor’s appointment. There are millions more who will lose out on job opportunities because of a lack of connection.
From a recent Consumer Reports American Experiences Survey, we know that four-fifths of Americans now believe that access to broadband is as vital as electricity and running water. And while the high cost is a factor in many households — including so many of the most financially vulnerable, with nearly half of low-income households lacking connectivity — there are other factors holding back reliable access as well.
Part of the reason why the United States is falling behind the world on broadband internet connectivity is a lack of competition and adequate coverage. Like many Americans, I have witnessed the consequences of that problem firsthand. I moved my 90-year-old parents out of New York City when the pandemic worsened in March, and from the woods of upstate New York I began to experience what people across the country have dealt with when my virtual world became pixelated, slowed and frozen.
As someone running a 570-person nonprofit enterprise that had been moved to entirely remote work to serve our six million members, it was untenable.
The neighbors banded together and reached out to county officials and spent what seemed like hundreds of hours on the phone with the cable company getting the runaround on why they didn’t “have to service” our country road.
To get access to the speeds needed to operate the most essential internet applications of today, we were told that the residents of this rural dirt road would have to pay $48,000 to dig the trench and lay the cable. Our community found an independent contractor to dig the trench for a quarter of what was quoted, but the bureaucracy and opaqueness of the process has been deeply frustrating. To be clear, my neighbors and I are fortunate that we could afford to broker this solution, but it shouldn’t have to be like this just to get what has become an essential service in the 21st century.
For many families facing access issues in rural neighborhoods and under supported urban areas alike, the consequences can be far more severe. It may mean the difference between getting or losing a job, missing out on critical school time, or worse. Our national failure to properly fund and maintain public infrastructure is rearing its head in this moment of virtual necessity, and it threatens to further exacerbate pre-existing inequalities and wrench the opportunity gap even wider.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can and must ensure that broadband is available, accessible, and affordable for all Americans. We need a national commitment to reliable broadband access from our leaders and lawmakers who supply the infrastructure — and we need cable companies to step up to do their part, too. Short-term “special offers” extended during a pandemic from these same companies that haven’t prioritized connecting every community should not be seen as a sufficient fix.
America has tackled problems of this size and scope before. Nearly a century ago, our government marshaled bold investments and rallied the public and private sectors to electrify parts of our nation where lack of access had bred lack of opportunity. As we emerge from crisis and rebuild our economy this time around, we need to be thinking just as boldly about how to bring that level of resolve to the broadband market — ensuring that your equality, your wellbeing and your shot to get ahead in life aren’t held back by sputtering connections in the zip code you happen to call home.
The next iteration of our economy must be designed by and for the people, with the full, modern meaning of equality and opportunity in mind. We can’t simply leave a responsibility this immense to large companies with interests of their own — the future of our entire nation is at stake. We need a comprehensive national strategy and the funding to ensure that the economy that emerges from this moment doesn’t leave large swaths of America behind from the get-go, so that every single family has a real chance to pursue their 21st century American Dream.
Marta L. Tellado is president and CEO of the nonprofit Consumer Reports.
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