With an ever-increasing percentage of our personal, private and professional work taking place online, there is greater risk for the information out there. Consumers are worried about the loss of privacy online and how secure their data really is (and rightly so). However, we have spent a lot of time looking at protections for consumers online and not nearly enough time focusing on the reality that there are still a lot of people in this economy not online. Which brings us to the topic of digital equity.
What Is Digital Equity?
Digital equity, as defined by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, is the condition in which “all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy and economy. Digital Equity is necessary for civic and cultural participation, employment, lifelong learning, and access to essential services.”
The digital divide is a problem laid bare during the pandemic and one that needs to be resolved as part of the rebuilding of the economy. The pandemic has been a major world event and will likely be regarded as the catalyst to a lot of pivotal changes in our society. With so much federal stimulus in the economy, it is time for Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to work together to improve broadband infrastructure and modernize the way we talk about it.
Issues With How the FCC Currently Operates
A lot has changed in recent years, but one thing that has not changed is how the FCC defines high-speed internet: 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream. This alone is outdated, but it is just one of many problems with how the FCC, the government agency that regulates communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable across the country, reports broadband statistics.
Defining Internet Speeds
A big issue is how the FCC defines quality internet speeds: “The federal government’s definition of high-speed broadband has remained stagnant over the last six years, sitting at 25Mbps down and 3Mbps up since 2015.” Realistic broadband speeds that reflect how people actually use the internet in 2021 is likely 4 times the current definition and would be 100 Mbps down and up.
Then there is the way in which the FCC permits the industry to self-report broadband availability across the U.S. They use census blocks, so if one person in that area has broadband access, they count every household in the area as having access. This practice has created a flawed mapping system that misrepresents the reality of internet access across the country.
Tracking Fiber Optic
Because of the faulty methodology in how it reports broadband access and data, the FCC also massively overstated the rollout of ultra high speed internet across the country. The FCC reported that 84% of households had access to a gigabit internet connection in 2020 (up from 4% in 2016), but access was over reported due to the way the FCC tracks data.
A study by the research firm BroadbandNow checked 75 addresses in zip codes where the FCC showed gigabit coverage and found that in all 75 cases, ISPs that service the area did not offer a gigabit service.
As for fiber optic, which offers the fastest internet connection, the infrastructure required to provide mass rollout amounts to $8,000 per home, though this is mostly due to rules regarding how the cables are to be buried.
Why Should We Care?
The internet isn’t just a luxury or for entertainment. We increasingly use the internet for work, school or even attending our doctors appointments with Teledoc. As it is currently structured, unequal access to quality, reliable internet (or devices that connect to the internet) will only increase the divide between the haves and have-nots in society.
If schooling is going to take place even partly online, we should strive for all students to have equal access. If business is going to be online, we should aim for all communities to have equal access. Otherwise, we will perpetuate inequalities inherent in the current reality – which currently exists as a lack of infrastructure investment in communities of color or rural communities.
How Many Americans Don’t Have Access to Quality Internet?
According to the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Report, “21.3 million Americans, or 6.5 percent of the population, lack access to broadband internet, including wired and fixed wireless connections,” but this is likely an underestimation of the real data due to the way the FCC gathers data.
Disparities in internet access are especially prominent when comparing metropolitan areas with rural areas or suburban areas with low-income communities that are, due to segregation and red-lining, under-invested with disproportionately black and minority populations.
So when we talk about internet freedoms and the ability to succeed in this new economy, we can’t perpetuate the inequalities of our old society that made everything less equitable and less free.
Schools and Remote Learning
It begins with our schools and colleges. Internet access during the pandemic, as well as home life and individual circumstances, meant that students’ learning and development were unequal. This disproportionately affected students in low-income communities.
Digital equity is equal access to fast, reliable internet. There were too many stories in 2020 of students and their teachers relying on the Wi-Fi at McDonalds or Starbucks to be present in the online classroom.
The Case for Net Neutrality
A common principle that advocates for a free and open internet has always been that internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all internet communications equally. That is, they should not slow down internet speeds or charge more for access to individuals based on user, content, website, platform, app, equipment and address.
Net neutrality regulations, governed under the Communications Act, were put in place by the Obama administration to protect consumers by ensuring internet service providers (ISPs) “treat all traffic equally.”
Those regulations were repealed in June 2018 by the subsequent administration. Net neutrality, as it had been defined, had been killed by Ajit Pai, then Chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The deregulation of the internet (along with other digital infrastructure) did not improve access to the internet or make the internet more equitable. The move favored the telecommunication industry to the detriment of the public.
The lack of net neutrality regulations was particularly worrisome when practically everyone was working or studying from home in 2020, and we quickly saw broadband transition from a luxury to a necessity. If internet access, speeds and costs are no longer regulated, the equitable distribution of broadband is not guaranteed, and it will become easier for internet access to perpetuate the inequalities that exist in our society.
A New Administration
The incoming administration is taking a relatively progressive approach towards broadband access, including it in the greater infrastructure bill. They are also taking more seriously the responsibility of leveling the playing field, baking equitable solutions into climate and infrastructure policies as a way to resolve generations of discriminatory practices.
Federal Communications Commission Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has already established a Broadband Data Task Force and has ambitions to orchestrate what amounts to a census on internet speed and access across the country. Already, they are redrawing FCC maps and compiling consumer feedback to build a more accurate picture of the broadband reality of the population in this country.
And in the language that Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel uses, there is an explicit call to make internet access not just universal but equitable. Speaking with Molly Wood on Marketplace, Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel urged that, “This is the infrastructure every household and every community needs to have a fair shot in the twenty-first century.”
Broadband as a Utility
There is growing demand for regulating broadband as a utility, like heat, water and electricity, driven mostly by the reality of 2020. Between remote work and online schooling, the pandemic forced many households running simultaneous streams to compete for broadband.
But more importantly, regulating broadband as a utility would mean that students and teachers would be more likely to afford and have access to the broadband they need to participate in virtual classroom environments.
Many states are not waiting for the FCC to redraw outdated maps and supply them with data before deciding to move on broadband access. Many have received federal stimulus and are using the money to improve internet access now.
New York State is the first to pass a law requiring ISPs to provide affordable broadband to low-income households. Governor Cuomo signed the bill that caps the price of regular broadband at $15 and high-speed broadband at $20. Although, because the FCC definitions are severely dated, “high-speed” isn’t actually that high speed. Still, even though only those classified as low-income will qualify for these rates, the move will reportedly impact over 7 million people in 2.7 million households across the state, as per Cuomo’s press release.
Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel is an advocate for net neutrality and is using the events of 2020 to build on the momentum of broadband, high-speed internet and the importance of connecting everyone everywhere to the internet.
Reinstating net neutrality rules will mean a vote within the FCC, which could easily be overturned by another administration in the future. The back-and-forth politicking will be a hurdle towards actual and consistent improvements.
It remains to be seen whether lasting improvements to broadband infrastructure and access will get through both houses of Congress but, since the pandemic, it is much easier to have a conversation about digital equity and the importance the internet has on all of our lives.
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