by emerging media graduate student Mike Ruddock
Access to broadband Internet for all citizens has never been as important as it is today. The Internet shapes our culture and economy and access to it has become an essential part of everyday life. From finding a job to running a competitive business, the Internet boosts opportunity. Its strength lies in its ability to reach far and wide and it allows us to connect to others in ways and with speed that we have never been able to connect before. This connection brings relationships, partnerships, and the sharing of ideas to a new high, simply by a tap or click on a screen.
As we seize this awesome technology, we also have the responsibility to ensure equal access of its power to all. It is easy for those in broadband rich locations to take for granted the ease in which we can communicate. While we may be able to accept and understand the infrastructure challenges in rural locations, it is important to know this isn’t necessarily a rural or infrastructure challenge, but a challenge about access for all.
Not all connections are equal
Using Baltimore, Maryland as an example, its great educational institutions and corporate organizations have superior access to broadband to innovate, grow, and succeed. However, blocks away from these locations, residents and smaller businesses do not have the same access to the Internet and its powers, especially at the speeds available at these institutions. This discrepancy of access hinders their growth and success and leaves them at a disadvantage. This is partly due to the lack of financial resources, but also due to lack of options and lack of Internet coverage.
In a March 2016 report by the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA), The Digital Divide and Economic Benefits of Broadband Access, the main findings indicate the existence of a digital divide, citing that only 50% of households in bottom income brackets utilize the Internet while 95% of households in top income brackets utilize the Internet. The report also acknowledges that broadband access provides socio-economic benefits including better employment/re-employment rates, better access to health care, increased civic participation, and stronger economic growth. This digital divide isn’t only about income. Black, Native American, and Hispanic households have lower Internet subscription rates, as do those with educational completion at or below a high school level.
Leading the charge
The New NY Broadband Program, led by Governor Cuomo, is one of many starting to lessen this digital divide with its commitment to high-speed broadband access to every New Yorker by 2018. Broadband access in this program is defined as 25 Mbps or greater which equates to 25 percent of the State’s population as having insufficient broadband access. The program is investing $500M to fund Internet access to unserved and underserved locations. Under the program, the State of New York will match private sector investments in order to incentivize broadband providers to expand their services. In addition, those providers must provide at least 100 Mbps, with the understanding that those who deliver the fastest speeds at the lowest cost will benefit from preferred funding.
ConnectHome, a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and service providers such as Comcast and Cox, are extending affordable broadband access to those living in HUD-assisted housing. In addition, the program is developing partnerships to support training, device affordability, and the establishment of digital literacy programs. Best Buy, PBS, and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America are just a few of many businesses and non-profits dedicated to providing this support.
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are also dedicated to tackling this digital divide. At a August 2016 appearance at Futuramic Tool & Engineering in Michigan, Clinton stated, “it’s astonishing to me how many places in America, not way, way far away from cities, but in cities and near cities, don’t have access to broadband.” Clinton is committed to closing the digital gap by 2020. The Obama administration supports these efforts as well as net neutrality, which creates an open Internet that ensures equal access to all, regardless of Internet provider. In June 2016, a federal appeals court found that Internet access is as important as public utilities like water or electricity.
Changing the way we live
So how does the Internet shape our culture and economy and why has access to it become an essential part of everyday life? As technology expands its capabilities, it changes how we learn. It can provide online options to those who can’t attend educational instruction in person or better yet, it can provide immersive educational experiences using virtual reality technologies. When we are in need of medical care, technology and the Internet provides data about our medical history to the medical team before we arrive at the hospital in an emergency.
Imagine a commute with consistent travel times and no accidents. With autonomous driving vehicles, the technology does the driving. Citizens search, apply, and find their dream jobs online. Broadband rich communities thrive as they are better able to support growing industries by using technologies to become more competitive in the marketplace. Service industries are more efficient within the increased ability to track their results with technology and can then in turn provide better service at lower cost.
Opportunity for all
For those who live in broadband rich communities, the benefits of high-speed Internet access are widely known and utilized as broadband has become a part of everyday life. It is as important as water and electricity. The responsibility of our governments and our citizens is to continually invest in these technologies ensuring equal access to all. We can do this by supporting programs like ConnectHome and demanding investment by our government and service providers. When we are able to ensure equal access to broadband Internet to all of our citizens, we will be able to connect with each other in unimaginable ways that will boost our economy and our culture.