We are reliant on the internet. There’s no debating that. Last year proved exactly how reliant we are. As the world shut down during the height of the pandemic, people turned to the internet as a replacement for in-person social interaction. Nowadays, work, school, doctor’s appointments and even concerts can be attended from the comfort of your own home, under one condition: you have access to the internet.
Wi-Fi and internet access are luxuries we often take for granted. According to the Annual Federal Communications Commission Broadband Access Report, 14.5 million Americans do not have the infrastructure needed to access the internet. This problem heavily affects those in rural areas. Nationally, 57 million rural Americans don’t have access to the internet. America is supposedly an international industrial powerhouse. So, why do rural Americans not have the bare minimum of internet access, and why is this embarrassing lack of infrastructure not more of a priority?
In response to its 2020 Annual Broadband Access Report, the FCC patted itself on the back in a press release about the supposed progress it’s made. Yes, there have been significant strides in expanding broadband access, but it’s not nearly enough. The press release states that rural Americans without internet “with a median speed of 10/3 Mbps, has been slashed from over 35% to under 10%” over two years. On the surface, these stats look promising, but 10/3 Mbps, or megabits per second, is drastically below the minimum standard of internet speed. 10/3 Mbps means download speeds are 10 megabits per second and upload speeds at 3 megabits per second. 10/3 Mbps isn’t enough for video conferencing, streaming, running multiple applications at once, supporting more than one user or more than one device at once. It’s certainly not enough for online school, working from home or barely any aspect of our new digital society.
In response to the report and press release, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel released a scathing dissenting statement. The commissioner states, “There are people sitting in parking lots using free Wi-Fi signals because they have no other way to get online. There are students who fall in the homework gap because they lack the high-speed service they need to participate in remote learning. There are mayors in towns across the country clamoring for better broadband so their communities have a fair shot at digital age success.” Rosenworcel is completely right. The FCC’s self-important and tone-deaf victory laps are insulting to the millions of Americans struggling to get by without the internet during the pandemic.
In addition to magnifying their disappointing progress, the FCC is in direct violation of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The act requires the FCC to immediately provide advanced telecommunications capability and remove obstacles to infrastructure investment if it is determined internet access is not “being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.” Nothing is “reasonable or timely” about the sad half-attempt, like the Emergency Broadband Benefit, to expand internet access in rural America during an international crisis.
There are efforts to expand internet access across the country, like Biden’s infrastructure plan and the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. As ambitious and groundbreaking as the infrastructure plan is, the $65 billion investment into high-speed internet is too late considering the massive hardship the pandemic has already caused. RDOF is a progressive program that offers a $20.4 billion reward to companies over 10 years to provide rural homes and small businesses with high-speed internet, but it is also too little, too late. These plans are a step in the right direction, but the neglect of rural internet infrastructure has caught up with us. Now, the government must play catch-up to fix what years of ignoring this problem has caused.
Living without the internet is not an abstract, unseen issue. People are struggling to connect in App State’s backyard. Rural Appalachia is underdeveloped compared to the rest of rural America. According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, over a quarter of households don’t have internet. Watauga County’s numbers are slightly more optimistic but still disappointing, with 17.1% of households without internet. There is plenty of money and resources to fix this issue. Not doing so is outright ignoring taxpayers.
Since the pandemic began, everyday life has gone digital. Americans without the internet should not be forced to sit out school, work and doctor’s appointments because of the neglect and failures of their government. Blaming funding or bureaucratic red tape is an embarrassing excuse. Our government can and should do better. Rosenworcel said it best, “What I take from all of this activity is that the job is not done. There is progress. But we have not yet reached all Americans. We have real work to do before we can claim that 100% of this country has access to broadband service.”