Try to imagine a world without the internet. That would be difficult for most of us, but for large portions of rural areas and many urban communities in our country, high-speed internet is unaffordable or, oftentimes, unavailable. People living in these areas are at a tremendous social disadvantage. Reliable, high-speed internet is no longer a convenience, it has become a necessity. Children need the internet to do their homework, emergency services and hospitals need reliable communication links, and businesses need real-time access to markets and information to be competitive. Try getting a job or finding housing without being connected. Put plainly, the internet has become essential in order to participate in modern society, and to stay competitive with the rest of the world.
“What’s at stake is whether new jobs, ideas and services will come from the United States … or Stockholm, Seoul and Beijing where the kids already play in virtual sandboxes of very high capacity networks,” says Susan Crawford, Harvard Law School professor, former Special Assistant for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy to President Obama, and author of “Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age.” After seeing firsthand that other countries have internet speeds that are “100 times faster than the very fastest connection available in the United States and for 1/17 of the price, it really is astonishing what’s going on in America. Americans aren’t quite aware of it because we don’t look beyond our borders, but we’re falling way behind in the pack of developed nations when it comes to high-speed internet access, capacity and prices.”
How did this happen? When the internet was first introduced, it was distributed over phone lines using a dial-up system that was clumsy and unreliable. It improved when the phone companies offered a dedicated line (DSL) and cable companies started to distribute through their coaxial network, but these services use electrical signals running through copper wire. That’s the technology of the past. Fiber optics transmit signals through hair-sized strands of glass and plastic using light impulses. Wireless and satellite services use radio waves and can be utilized in rural areas where phone lines and cable are not available. The problem is that it isn’t profitable unless you have enough subscribers to cover the costs of building networks and providing service. Digging trenches and setting poles to bury cable or hang lines is not something companies are going to do unless they can see a return on their investment. There is no financial incentive to provide service in vast swaths of the rural west and south. You can visit the National Broadband Map (broadbandmap.gov) to see an illustration of available networks across the country.
Far from being strictly a rural problem, many urban areas are equally underserved. One of the primary reasons is because of digital redlining, which the Center for Social Inclusion describes this way: “People of color, thanks to a history of housing discrimination and poverty, tend to live in older buildings and communities. Telecoms avoid investing in these communities because of the cost of upgrading the infrastructure and the impact on their profit margin. Their neglect leaves communities of color in the digital dark.” Whether it’s geography or income that determines availability or affordability, this is what’s referred to as the “digital divide”.
Eric Friedman is a REALTOR® in St. Louis, but his passion is smart growth and neighborhood enhancement. “The goal of my real estate business is to pay for my addiction to community and economic development.” To that end, he co-founded Broadband Collaborative, whose mission is to “enhance economic health and sustainability by creating broadband capabilities ... that diminish the digital divide within and between communities.” They provide services that can take a development from start to finish, including feasibility studies, financing, design, public input and project management; but the focus is bringing together government services and entrepreneurial companies for public-private partnerships (P3).
“High-speed broadband is part of our infrastructure. It’s like water and electricity. If you don’t have it, you’re not going to be competitive,” Friedman says. “But it’s not about the wires, it’s not about the fiber. It’s about what we do with that to accelerate access to information and health. For a really smart country, we’re doing things that aren’t very smart, that aren’t sustainable.” He describes the current situation by stating, “net neutrality is critical for a competitive market, but we don’t have a free-market system because of the incumbents,” referring to the companies that weren’t broken up in the 1982 anti-trust ruling that made AT&T give up its control of Bell Operating Systems, and Ma Bell turned into a bunch of Baby Bells. Today, the “Big Four” providers are Comcast and Time- Warner (cable), and Verizon and AT&T (wireless mobile).
The evidence regarding high-speed internet access in the United States is hard to ignore, particularly after the Brookings Institution released a 68-page report entitled “Signs of Digital Distress: Mapping Broadband Access and Subscription in American Neighborhoods,” in September of 2017. The research organization found that 73 million Americans (including 17.7 million children) live in areas that have less than 40 percent in-home broadband subscription rates, even though service is available, and over 22 million live in areas where highspeed internet service isn’t available at all, with over 80 percent of these living in rural areas. Other reports that rank average speed of internet service by country have the United States at tenth place, and rankings for overall availability have us placed in the mid to upper 20s among nations. The field is now dominated by European and Asian countries. The internet was brought to life primarily in America, and we were leaders during the initial phase of the world wide web. We are slipping in the pack as technologies allow other countries to accelerate development faster than us.
The authors of the Brookings report give reason for optimism, though. “Fortunately, there is progress. Government programs at all levels ... aim to boost broadband adoption. Just as importantly, vigorous debate continues among public officials, civic organizations, technology providers, major industries, and researchers about how to best address the gaps highlighted in this report.”
Perhaps the greatest reason for being hopeful that the rural gap will get some help came with the recently passed Omnibus Spending Package. The U.S. Department of Agriculture was given $600 million to administer a new pilot grant and loan combination program through its Office of Rural Development, which is committed to economic and quality of life improvement for people living in rural areas. The Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, released a statement indicating his agency’s excitement to have this opportunity. “It is unacceptable that millions of people in rural America currently lack access to reliable broadband. I have travelled extensively across the nation and everywhere I go I have heard how important increased broadband is to rural Americans ... The inclusion of this money dovetails nicely with President Trump’s bold agenda to restore and expand the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, which will include massive investment in rural America.” The funding is expected to leverage nearly$1 billion in total new rural broadband projects. In addition to financial support, the Office of Rural Development also provides technical assistance and information services to communities and businesses.
Joanne Hovis is the president of CTC Technology and Energy in Kensington, Md. She is also an attorney with a background in communication and commercial litigation. Her focus is working with government agencies in developing P3 initiatives that help bring broadband to rural communities. She sits on the board of directors for the Fiber Broadband Association and is the CEO of the Coalition for Local Internet Choice.
She recently testified before members of Congress on the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology during a hearing titled “Closing the Digital Divide: Broadband Infrastructure Solutions.” Her testimony described the present situation as not having ubiquity across the country because of a lack of return on the investment of infrastructure for the incumbent providers. She believes that the best solution is through P3 projects that begin with local government. She was very pleased with the Omnibus funding when we spoke with her for this article.
“That is such a good sign. For a long time, there was no real infrastructure funding coming out of Congress. That’s $600 million that wasn’t available before.” But this is a problem with no quick fix. “Technology will not alleviate the need for infrastructure deployment.” She points out that even fixed wireless service requires “a robust fiber network” feeding it, and that wireless distribution is still affected by physical terrain and even the leaves on trees. “Our needs are growing exponentially, but the networks in rural areas are not growing. Rural electrification required significant federal assistance, as did rural water systems, the rural roads and interstates.”
Bridging the digital divide across underserved areas will require more than public funding of the status quo. “Because of a lack of infrastructure and lack of competition, it is in many cases not affordable (to provide service). You have these enormous disparities between high-density, high-income markets as opposed to poorer and more rural areas. There’s no business case for ubiquitous deployment of any communication technology across the country or even across a community. The economics don’t work that way. The private sector will deploy where it makes sense, and that’s what it should do. Private investment will go to select neighborhoods, and even just parts of those neighborhoods.”
An equitable distribution of high-speed internet service is going to take a new model, and “local government is critical. We need to unleash it to find smart new ways to share risks and to share costs.” Through easing the economic challenges of building the infrastructure with better access to feasible bonding and financing, leveraging public property and right-of-ways, and incentivizing businesses to expand into new markets, local governments are taking greater control, providing the connectivity needs of their constituents. Lacking access to high-speed internet is no longer acceptable. “It is increasingly the platform over which our democracy functions,” Hovis states. “For better or for worse.”
This year, we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, which became law in that tumultuous year of 1968 when equality was a growing concern. In 1996, the United States President’s Council on Sustainable Development defined social equity as “equal opportunity, in a safe and healthy environment.” In 2018, being sustainable means being competitive, and safe and healthy communities need reliable, high-speed internet service.
"I believe broadband is the key to those elements described in the book “A New Digital Deal,” primarily: accelerating economic, community, educational, health, and sustainable real estate development through community networks and collective impact projects,” Friedman says. “High-speed broadband fiber is the next big game changer.”Kurt Buss is a freelance writer who lives in Loveland, Colo., with over 25 years of experience managing recycling programs along Colorado’s Front Range. He writes about resource conservation, being a Baby Boomer, and enjoying the Rocky Mountains. You can visit his website at www.kurtbusscoloradofreelancewriter.com