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Off the Grid: Disconnected in America

Columns | April 24, 2017

Broadband access for a Tufts student has become an assumed service of the university—akin to heated classrooms, running water, and Spring Fling. The “Tufts Memes for Quirky Queens” page had a bashful laugh when a slight alteration to Pavlov’s Hierarchy of Needs added the new foundation of Wi-Fi. Understandably, web access has become a critical infrastructure to modern life, from food delivery to academic research, to the point where it’s a challenge to imagine life without it.

Tremendous opportunities come with this digital connectivity. The tacit knowledge we have gleaned from word of mouth and formal education on how to maximize our use of the internet is critical; the early knowledge of keyboard shortcuts, search engine usage, and our laser eye for unreliable media in a diffuse news landscape has allowed us to become lay masters of the web. If we don’t know something, we know exactly where to find it, or at least where to start. With it, we are learning at a faster rate than our parents (and professors) could ever have dreamed of when they were in school.

Spending the last semester working as a research assistant at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society gave me a glimpse into the realities of America’s digital divide. It is a frightening gap that receives little attention in a post-Obama era, especially following the appointment of Ajit Pai, former Verizon executive, to head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). It is important to question why these issues rarely make it into the primetime CNN debate, or even your daily news digest. Consider the fact that films like Supersize Me, An Inconvenient Truth, and 13th have fundamentally changed public perception. I believe that there has yet to be a film, work of literature, or piece of media capable of summarizing the nuances of broadband inequity.

You may have come across terms like the “homework gap,” which is the idea that some students struggle to complete assignments as weak broadband connectivity at home greatly limits their productivity. This gap has widened as an increasing number of elite schools incorporate Internet-based learning into daily curriculum. This gap disproportionately affects low-income urban households, second only to poor, rural households. While large telecommunications providers continue to battle over access to telephone poles and underground digging rights with the intent to lay more fiber optic cables, we are beginning to see fundamental limitations of the free market.

Providers like AT&T, Spectrum, and Verizon, who operate the lion’s share of private cables in this country, have limited incentive to serve poorer communities. They understand that poorer communities only have so much disposable income to spend on family internet, and given the cost to provide the service, providers take their business elsewhere. Where is elsewhere in this case? Rich, densely populated, likely urban neighborhoods filled with high-frequency users. Not to mention, according to a recent FCC report, nearly 75 percent of Americans have at most one choice for high-speed internet service. More competition is better for the consumer, and in a vast majority of the country, there simply is none.

Some policymakers are misguided in this space. For example, some argue that the increase in cellular connectivity, particularly 3G access, is a sufficient improvement. 3G allows more cell phones to process data, but it also veils the fundamental problem. This Band-Aid solution is both costly to the user and insufficient in its ability to process the large bits of data some students and practitioners frequently need. A similar response has been increases in “community broadband access.” This system refers to Wi-Fi hotspots in civic centers, local libraries, and other points of interest in underserved communities. The problem here lies in their hours of operation, time limits, high demand, and scarcity creating a narrow window for any student to access the service. Everything we do, from manufacturing, traffic management, and local elections, require inexpensive and reliable data transmission. This is an American problem, not just an education problem.

Wi-Fi, therefore, must become a federally mandated public utility. The reality of this matter is that although the United States has illuminated technology’s frontier role in society and our individual lives, we have left people behind due to the limitations of the free market on a service that is critical to growth and prosperity in our modern economy. Education, access to the web, and involvement in our modern economy are inextricably linked. We are falling behind, as countries like South Korea, Japan, the Nordic states, and much of Europe are leading efforts for widespread state-operated broadband connectivity. The “but we are way bigger than those countries, so it is harder to provide service across such a large landmass” argument is simply nullified by the China case, a premier leader in the race to universal connectivity. We have the resources to provide service to a much broader base of Americans; the only question, then, is do we have the will?