Competition won't solve the digital divide — communities will

Competition won't solve the digital divide — communities will
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The Biden administration’s strategy to tackle the digital divide places too much emphasis on wires and competition and too little on people and communities. 

By proposing $65 billion in broadband spending, the administration aims to spur marketplace competition, supercharge network speeds, and reduce home internet prices. After all, everyone knows that competition drives down prices, which should get more people online, especially the poor.

What could go wrong with prioritizing competition? A lot. For openers, competition and affordable service do not go hand-in-hand. Extensive analyses of Census Bureau datasets show little or no correlation between broadband competition and higher rates of adoption of broadband to the home. For most Americans, competition means one fiber and one cable company who compete more on network speed than price. When prices drop, they rarely fall to levels that make service affordable for low-income households who make up most of the disconnected. They just have to wait for the magic of the market to work.

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So, if competition isn’t the solution, what is? If we mean to solve the digital divide, we must think local and cultivate community solutions. We normally think of roads, parks, schools and public libraries as community infrastructures, but they all depend on digital networks to function effectively. Their values increase as more people connect to them using the internet, and that makes broadband a part of civic infrastructure. 

Cities already recognize this. In places such as Austin, Texas,  Nashville, Tenn., and Louisville, Ky., “digital inclusion funds” help train members of low-income households in the use of computers and the internet. Other communities, such as Charlotte, N.C. and Providence, R.I. recruit “digital navigators” to provide one-on-one help for people, such as older adults, who need hands-on assistance. Using American Recovery Act funds, several states (New York and Maryland, for example) plan to enlist an army of digital navigators. And many school districts have entered into partnerships with internet service providers to offer computers and connectivity solutions to households with students during the pandemic.  

Clearly, new broadband networks play a critical role in local initiatives, but not in ways envisioned in the Biden proposal. In more than 40 communities, such as Baltimore, Md., Pittsburgh, Pa., Columbus, Ohio and Detroit, Mich., “gap networks” are in development. These wireless networks bring low-cost or free access to poor neighborhoods with limited or no connectivity — places where private providers have shown little interest. Gap networks bring the great potential of digital connectivity to places that otherwise will be last in line for fiber deployment and 5G networks. 

The lesson for national policymakers who want to make a difference? Avoid putting all your eggs in the competition basket. Instead, follow the lead of communities that are filling gaps in rural America and in the nation’s underserved neighborhoods. Commit funds for digital skills training and tech support in communities where broadband adoption is low. Reinforce planning capacity at the state and local levels to cultivate community participation in network development and use. Back up anchor institutions on the front lines, especially schools, local non-profits, and public libraries that maintain trusted relationships with low-income tech users in urban and rural America. 

There’s one more thing. The rise of local solutions exposes the critical flaw in our national approach to the digital divide. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, established a compact that relied on marketplace competition as a means of expanding consumer choice in broadband service. That left the work of closing the digital divide mainly to the private sector. At the same time, the federal government eviscerated the role of local authorities in franchise negotiations over public right-of-way for network deployment. Many states banned construction of municipal networks, thereby leaving corporate providers as the only game in town. Given a free hand, they targeted wealthier communities but bypassed the less affluent. Now, twenty-five years later, consumer choice lags, the digital divide persists.

It’s time to change direction. Communities across the country have begun to chart this new direction through policy innovations aimed at closing the digital divide. The Biden administration should pivot and reinforce the experimentation taking place in these civic laboratories. Then, as we have done since the time of the first post road, we can study, learn and take what’s best, in order to create a high-speed broadband network for the whole nation.

John B. Horrigan is a senior fellow at the Benton Institute on Broadband & Society, an expert on the digital divide and former director of research at the Federal Communications Commission for the National Broadband Plan. Jorge Reina Schement is a distinguished professor of Communications Policy, American Studies and Latino Studies at Rutgers University — New Brunswick’s School of Communication & Information.