Like clean water and electricity, broadband access has become a modern-day necessity. The spread of COVID-19 and the ensuing closure of schools and workplaces and even the need for telemedicine make this seem like a new imperative, but the idea is over a decade old. Broadband is a fundamental human right, essential in times like now, but just as essential when the world isn’t in chaos.
A decade ago, Finland declared broadband a legal right. In 2011, the United Nations issued a report [PDF] with a similar conclusion. At the time, the United States was also debating its broadband policy and a series of policy efforts that would ensure everyone had access to broadband. But decisions made by the Federal Communications Commission between 2008 and 2012 pertaining to broadband mapping, network neutrality, data caps and the very definition of broadband are now coming back to haunt the United States as cities lock themselves down to flatten the curve on COVID-19.
While some have voiced concerns about whether the strain of everyone working remotely might break the Internet, the bigger issue is that not everyone has Internet access in the first place. Actually, most U.S. residential networks are built for peak demand, and even the 20 to 40 percent increase in network traffic seen in locations hard hit by the virus won’t be enough to buckle networks.
An estimated 21 million to 42 million people in the United States don’t have physical access to broadband, and even more cannot afford it or are reliant on mobile plans with data limits. For this significant portion of our population, remote schooling and work are prohibitively expensive at best and simply not an option at worst. This number hasn’t budged significantly in the last decade, and it’s not just a problem for the United States. In Hungary, Spain, and New Zealand, a similar percentage of households also lack broadband subscriptions according to data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Faced with the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, Internet service providers in the United States have already taken several steps to expand broadband access. Comcast, for example, has made its public Wi-Fi network available to anyone. The company has also expanded its Internet Essentials program—which provides a US $9.95 monthly connection and a subsidized laptop—to a larger number of people on some form of government assistance.
To those who already have access but are now facing financial uncertainty, AT&T, Comcast, and more than 200 other U.S. ISPs have pledged not to cut off subscribers who can’t pay their bills and not to charge late fees, as part of an FCC plan called Keep Americans Connected. Additionally, AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon have also promised to eliminate data caps for the near future, so customers don’t have to worry about blowing past a data limit while learning and working remotely.
It’s good to keep people connected during quarantines and social distancing, but going forward, some of these changes should become permanent. It’s not enough to say that broadband is a basic necessity; we have to push for policies that ensure companies treat it that way.
“If it wasn’t clear before this crisis, it is crystal clear now that broadband is a necessity for every aspect of modern civic and commercial life. U.S. policymakers need to treat it that way,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel says. “We should applaud public spirited efforts from our companies, but we shouldn’t stop there.”
This article appears in the May 2020 print issue as “We All Deserve Broadband.”
Stacey Higginbotham writes “Internet of Everything,” Spectrum’s column about how connected devices shape our lives. Tech writer Higginbotham enjoys covering the Internet of Things because the topic encompasses semiconductors, wireless networks, and computing hardware. She alsopublishes a weekly newsletter called Stacey Knows Things and hosts The Internet of Things Podcast. Higginbotham figures she has at least 60 IoT gadgets in her Austin, Texas, home, and she admits, “Frankly, I hate keeping it all up and running.”