It’s Time For An Internet-For-All Public Utility (Before Corona Crashes It)

The US digital infrastructure is at risk.  It was never designed for the current demand.  It’s just another infrastructure in need of repair and investment.  It’s a hodge-podge of components:  broadband service, big pipes to companies, small pipes to homes, cheap Wi-Fi routers with limited ranges, and diverse connected devices in various states of repair, updates and security.  All good – except when it’s stressed.  A classic “multiple-points-of-failure” scenario.  

Who isn’t using email, video, text, online banking, online learning management systems, cloud-based applications – and countless more apps – to run their personal and professional lives?  How stable are these platforms?  How much use can they take before service begins to degrade?  

Another question:  is access to the Internet – however reliable it is right now (or anytime) – a right or a privilege?  The question is important right now when millions of Americans cannot access – or cannot afford to access – the Internet to go to school, talk to their doctors or order food – regardless of how stable or unstable it might be.  

Another Crumbling Infrastructure 

Problems are already emerging.  Loyal Internet service provider (ISP) customers are receiving emails and text messages from their providers about expected delays.  Video teleconferences are unstable.  Connections especially for video chats are now warning – perhaps while on a telemedical session with their doctors – about “weak connections.”  My online bank is continuously warning me about delays.  I cannot cancel trips; I cannot get refunds.  Incredibly, good-paying ISP customers seem to just accept this with an “oh well” shrug while still paying full fare on an Internet train that’s really slow and makes unpredictable stops.  

Way, way back in February of 2018,  James Stavrides and Dave Weinstein writing in Bloomberg made a simple assertion:  “America’s Digital Infrastructure is Crumbling, Too.” Now we’re surging.  Is the private digital infrastructure ready for surges?  

A couple of weeks ago, Davey Alba and Cecilia Kang asked:  “So We’re Working From Home.  Can the Internet Handle It?”  While providers are temporarily increasing their packages especially to home users, will they continue to do so indefinitely?  (Without repricing their offerings?)  

What About a Public Digital Infrastructure?

If ever there was a wake-up call to an immediate infrastructure threat, Corona is it.  So let’s make the case for a public digital infrastructure (PDI).  But before we do, let’s make another, larger argument for infrastructure investments that extend well past digital.  How many times does the US have to be humiliated by the infrastructure readiness reports issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers – who grade the US a “D+.” At what point does the US decide it wants, maybe, a “C+”?    

So what about the PDI?  Is it even reasonable to ask the federal government to fund and govern a world-class broadband network utility – for everyone?  The argument here is yes.  The government should provide directed, comprehensive funding to broadband deployment across all parts of the country versus off-loading much of the cost to the states (who then enable ISPs to set prices).  The cost?  Around $100B to provide 100MB service everywhere.  Full funding replaces constant, crazy fights about funding and geographic eligibility, which always results in sub-optimal, under-served Americans – about 90 million Americans.

Funding Chaos

It’s safe to say that broadband/Internet funding is a complicated mess.  It’s a combination of loans, grants, middle and last-mile funding, general budget funding, tax incentives, bonds and other “special” funding infrastructure and access initiatives.  Regardless, states spend more on last-mile funding that on middle or backbone infrastructure funding.  

There are also endless debates about who’s “served” and “underserved.”  One state defines “under-served” (or “unserved”) as areas with no provider offering at least 10 Mbps (yes, 10 Mbps).  Another state defines underserved as some percentage of homes or companies have less than 25 Mbps speeds (yes, 25 Mbps).  Yet another state defines unserved by the number of providers in the area, while yet another state defines unserved if there’s only dial-up service.    

In May of 2019, Anne Stauffer and Kathryn De Wit wrote an article entitled “Policymakers Should Consider Broadband Infrastructure a National Priority.”  In this important piece, the authors summarize the bizarre labyrinth of broadband funding.  Read it and weep.

Who, What & Where?

How many Americans don’t have access to the Internet?  How many Americans don’t have access to high speed Internet?  How many Americans don’t even use the Internet?

The federal government believes that around 25 million Americans do not have access to broadband, but Microsoft has another view which diverges tremendously from what Ajit Pai “rosily”reported): 

Rather than 25 million people without broadband, Microsoft’s research indicates ‘162.8 million people are not using the internet at broadband speeds.’”

In addition, according to Pew Research, 10% (33 million Americans ) don’t use the Internet at all.

So let’s assume that the federal government and Microsoft are both right and seize the middle ground, which gives us a very uncomfortable number of around 90 million Americans without access to high speed broadband (plus some percentage of those who just don’t use the Internet, where there’s some overlap among those without access and those who don’t use the Internet).  90 million Americans without access to high speed Internet?  While crumbling bridges, pot-holed roads, awful public transportation and unsafe, inefficient airports fail annually to generate the attention of policymakers, how about 90 million Americans without access to the high-speed Internet?  Might that get someone’s attention?  During a pandemic?  

Right or Privilege?  Just Build a Utility  

Should broadband access to the Internet be a utility?  Can anyone identify a more important national capability?  Is it in the same category as electricity and water?  We all know the fear.  The word “utility” immediately suggests “regulation.”  Well, what if it’s never treated as a utility and never regulated?  How many Americans will be shut out of the “apps” we all love and – now – desperately need to support their personal and professional lives.  So what if utility-like funding was available to provide high-speed, affordable-for-all Americans?  (By the way, would the Americans who loathe the whole concept of “utility” prefer no regulation of electricity, water, nuclear power or air travel?) 

What to do?

  1. The federal government should provide $100B (or more) to build out national broadband capabilities (100 Mbps downloads and 50 Mbps uploads) and create a publicly-owned broadband network (yes, a full-blown utility)
  2. As a public utility, service providers should be required to offer affordable high-speed broadband to all Americans 

Sure, this is controversial, but it is really?  Broadband access to the Internet should be an American right not a privilege, where somewhere around 90 million Americans cannot get high-speed Internet-care.  Remember that the US now ranks pretty low in both speeds (#10 compared to 28 countries) and access to the Internet, compared to other developed countries.  Access to the Internet is also much more expensive than in most developed countries.  Such numbers directly threaten US competitiveness on so many levels.

So tell me again:  is access to the Internet a right or a privilege?  The question is extremely important right now when millions of Americans cannot access the Internet to go to school, talk to their doctors or order food.

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