The development of the internet as the backbone of modern society has provided us with no shortage of benefits. Since the boom times of the late-1990s and the subsequent deployment of high-speed internet access networks, we’ve collectively become used to conducting just about all of our daily business online – from shopping, to banking, to communicating with friends. Most of us have become so dependent on the internet that we’d feel lost and helpless without it.
That being said, it may come as quite a shock to many to learn that almost half of the world’s population isn’t online at all, and a great many more lack reliable high-speed access. It isn’t a problem that’s limited to the developing world, either. At last count, 78 million Americans were without broadband access. It’s getting to the point that we’re at risk of creating a permanent digital underclass – with internet access as the dividing line. Here’s a look at what’s going on and what it’s going to take to fix the problem.
To date, much of the public discourse (at least in the United States) regarding the growing digital divide has centered on the more rural parts of the country, where broadband providers have faced financial and geographic barriers to expansion. A closer look at the numbers, though, reveals that lack of access in rural America is only part of the problem. In reality, far more Americans go without broadband access in urban areas, by a multiple of almost three to one. In their case, the problem isn’t availability – it’s cost. The United States ranks a dismal 144th in the world in average cost for broadband, and at $66.17 per month, it remains out of reach for many already cash-strapped city-dwellers.
Part of the underlying issue that’s fueling the inequality in broadband internet access is the lack of adequate oversight of the major US broadband providers. Sadly, the current Federal Communications Commission is acting in ways that are likely to exacerbate the problem, from rolling back broadband cost support programs for the poor to slow-walking approvals of rural broadband expansion projects. At the same time, some of the country’s largest internet service providers are doing everything in their power to avoid investing in infrastructure improvements, even in cases where they’ve already agreed to do so. That hasn’t stopped them from spending millions of dollars lobbying politicians to approve ever-larger subsidies to support rural broadband initiatives.
Given the situation, it’s pretty clear that incumbent internet service providers and federal regulators aren’t going to be the ones to solve America’s widening digital divide. The good news is, local governments all around the country are taking steps to fix the problem themselves. They’re developing and deploying municipal broadband networks that aim to provide broadband access to residents at low, affordable prices. It’s a model that’s been proven in countries like Australia, where the National Broadband Network provides inexpensive broadband access to citizens via low-cost NBN plans that cover the cost of last-mile fiber-to-the-home connections. So far, at least 750 municipalities have bucked the incumbent providers and deployed their own citizen-owned internet networks, and more are expressing interest in joining them every day.
It’s too early to tell if the grass-roots efforts by local communities to expand affordable access to broadband internet services to all citizens will become the rule rather than the exception. The only thing that is clear is that the incumbent providers will spare no expense to try and stop such efforts, and the FCC seems intent on tying states’ hands with regards to regulating those providers locally. Still, there’s plenty of momentum behind efforts to build municipal broadband networks, so it seems unlikely that they’ll be able to hold back the tide for long.
In the end, breaking the monopolies that big internet service providers enjoy across much of the US may be all that’s necessary to drive down prices and create near-universal broadband access from coast to coast. It’s an effort we should all get behind. We owe it to ourselves and all of our neighbors to make sure everyone, regardless of class or location, can take part in our new digital society without delay – it’s the surest route to a more equal society in the digital age.