At this point, it has become something of a cliché to talk about how internet access is increasingly intertwined in our everyday lives. Pundits opine our addiction to social media, and despair our use of technology in places where it was previously unthinkable. However, these stories tend to gloss over the ways in which the internet is increasingly essential for everything from job hunting to media consumption to connecting with family. Regardless of any misgivings we might have, the internet has become part of the fabric of our society.
Even with this integration into our lives, broadband internet in the United States is in sorry shape. The Federal Communications Commission defines a broadband internet connection as one with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of at least 3 Mbps. That’s enough speed to download an HD movie in a little under 40 minutes. However, it’s important to note that the average American had a download speed of only about 19 Mbps during the first quarter of 2017, a full 6 Mbps less than the FCC’s definition of broadband. For reference, that difference in download speed would add more than ten minutes to the download time of that movie.
It’s also important to note that 23% of people in urban areas and 28% of people in rural areas of the United States don’t even have access to a broadband connection. These Americans are kept away from the benefits afforded by a fast, reliable internet connection. They are, in many ways, locked out of the connected future most Americans can enjoy.
With these factors in mind, it is time for us to begin to consider broadband internet a public good in the United States. It is increasingly clear that the private sector alone is unable to provide the world-class broadband we need to be competitive in the 21st century. Seeing that, all levels of government should take steps to encourage the development of our broadband network, from toughening Federal standards of what constitutes broadband to municipalities constructing their own broadband networks and operating them as public utilities.
There are substantial obstacles to this approach. Our country’s approach to broadband regulation is fundamentally broken, and has repeatedly placed the interests of telecom companies over efforts to enhance competition and increase access. As well, a patchwork of state and local laws making things like building out municipal fiber networks all but impossible almost necessitate local instead of national action. And there is almost no doubt that any efforts to change or improve regulations will provoke a response from the telecom lobby, one of the largest and most active in the country.
Regardless of the obstacles, though, the United States needs a world-class broadband network. A framework that prioritizes broadband’s status as a 21st century utility, as essential as water or electricity, is key to making the case for increased regulation and legal action to ensure fast, reliable, and equitable access to the internet and the benefits it provides. Without it, we run the risk of creating a future that fails to live up to the promises of the present.