“If I blindfolded you, spun you around a bunch of times, and had you throw darts at a dartboard, you’d have about as likely a chance of grouping your darts together as the U.S. having a comprehensive national broadband strategy,” joked Sascha Meinrath, a Pennsylvania State University professor.
Meinrath added, “Right now we have all these different programs – and it’s not to say that each of these individual programs might not being good things unto itself – but there is no comprehensive strategy. Which means that in an individual community or locality, there might be five different projects, each supporting a different component or facet or constituency or neighborhood.” He warned, “Because there’s no overarching coordination, in that same community you might have areas that are completely unserved after those programs are finished.”
“Between 2009 and 2017, the federal government spent $47 billion on broadband,” Christopher Ali, a media studies professor at the University of Virginia, pointed out. “The major reason, I think, why this spending has not solved the digital divide is that we’ve had a policy system that has favored the larger incumbent providers,” he added. “We’ve trusted the largest telecommunications companies to connect the country and they’ve failed miserably. We’ve given them billions of dollars in federal subsidies.”
In 2015, the U.S. government committed $1.49 billion over 10 years through the FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF) II to provide fixed broadband internet and voice services to over 700,000 locations in 45 states. The program required grant recipients to deliver service of 10 Mbps downloads and 1 Mbps uploads — not even half the FCC’s definition of broadband which is 25 Mbps downloads and 3 Mbps uploads.
The current all-inclusive category of “broadband” covers allocations estimated at about $650 billion. Monies are available through the FCC (i.e., CAF and Universal Service Fund) and the NTIA. Additional allocations come through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act (2020), the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRRSA) Act (2021) and the American Rescue Plan (ARP) (2021). (Allocations are presented in the NTIA’s BroadbandUSA website with its invaluable spreadsheet and State Broadband Leaders Network assessment.)
In addition, nearly every federal department supports some form of “broadband,” including Agriculture (i.e., Rural Utilities Service [RUS]), Education, HUD and Treasure as well as a host of independent federal agencies or federal-state partnerships like the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Delta Regional Authority, the Denali Commission (i.e., Alaska Broadband Commission), the Northern Border Regional Commission and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Chuck Sherwood, former member, Alliance for Community Media’s Public Policy Working Group, explained, “When the word ‘broadband’ is used you always have to ask: What type of broadband are you talking about?” He added, “Are you talking about network infrastructure; are you talking about e-rate subsidies for schools and libraries; are you talking about grants and loans by, for example, the Dept of Agriculture to rural telcos and coop to complete the migration from analog to digital and offer so-called broadband or high-speed internet access?” Going further, he argued, “the ‘digital divide’ is really ‘digital redlining.’”
Meinrath pointed out that “the mechanism that the U.S. utilizes to engage in digital redlining – discriminatory service practices – are all based upon these seemingly objective matrix: we are going to serve areas with, for example, the highest population density or the largest average return per user (ARPU), a standard term for for-profit businesses. And what we are going to ignore, in fact what we refuse to collect information about, is who are those constituencies.” He added, “We’re created these archipelagos of disconnect entities that are extremely expensive to reach.” Going further, he insisted, “It all boils down to a total lack of a national strategy – and a lack of any universal service method.”
Ali addressed the issue of digital redlining, pointing out, “Redlining” means you are deliberately not serving a community. That absolutely happens; it’s when providers will provide for one area with fiber optics and another area with dial-up or DSL for instance because, they assume, that it is a low-income area or minority neighborhood, and they won’t get same profits or return they project.”
Ali argued further, “I do think that when it comes to what term we use, I prefer to use the term ‘digital divides’ – with an “s” for plural – because infrastructure is but one aspect of the divide.” He noted, “There are so many divides that sometimes we get a little myopic that we believe that if we get broadband in the ground or in the air people will come.” He added, “You might have an internet subscription but if you don’t know how to use it you can’t book a vaccination appointment. We saw this a lot with elderly community and English-as-a-second-language community. They might be connected but they can’t use them – that’s also the digital divide.”
Reflecting on Biden’s $65 billion broadband infrastructure plan, Mitchell noted, “I think this [Biden plan] money can be successfully spent and go a long way to improving both internet access and getting infrastructure to homes that don’t have it. It will also help low-income families who just can’t afford what’s available.”
The Biden plan allocates $43 billion of the $65 billion to infrastrasture and the balance is allocated for “support” money (e.g., education, PCs). Ali warns, “I think the amount of funding that Congress made available could make sure every home has a high-quality internet access available to them. But I don’t think it will.”
Mitchell warned, “because some states will do a very good job of spending the money effectively and some won’t. That’s not the entire digital divide.” He added, “Congress has not approved enough money to resolve all the challenges, in particular in areas involving devices, digital skills and affordability. The rural broadband challenge will mostly be solved, but the challenge of affordability – which is both a rural and urban issue – remains to be delt with. We are making a down-payment on teaching the digital skills and getting devises out to people, but I don’t think there is enough money to fully finish that work.”
Sadly, Meinrath observed, “Thus, while everyone focuses on the upside benefits of the Internet ‘haves,’ the divide between those who have access to connectivity and those who don’t will grow exponentially because those who have connections will have access to an unbelievable array of new assets and resource, while those on the wrong side of the digital divide of tomorrow are going face ever increasing detrimental impacts on their lives.”