Access To High Speed Broadband And Reducing The Urban/Rural Divide
In the post-World War II era, the Eisenhower Interstate System was the envy of the world and a major driver of US economic growth. Authorized in 1956, at a time when the government had only run a surplus in just four years in the past quarter century and just a decade after the debt-to-GDP ratio peaked at over 105%, the massive, nationwide project was completed 35 years later.
Today, the superhighway that drives our economy is the internet and most of this country is as badly underserved by broadband as it was by roads in the 1940s. Today, nearly 40% of rural Americans are not able to access the internet at speeds that meet the FCC minimum of 25mbs/5mbs, no matter how much they are willing to pay. Only 62% of rural Americans even have broadband into their homes. According to the American Library Association, 40% of libraries in the country also do not receive the FCC minimum speeds. Instead, these rural Americans are forced to rely on cellular providers which can throttle their speeds and charge them for overages in the limited number of cellular plans available.
According to the Telecommunications Act of 1996, “Consumers in all regions of the Nation, including low-income consumers and those in rural, insular, and high cost areas, should have access to telecommunications and information services, including interexchange services and advanced telecommunications and information services, that are reasonably comparable to those services provided in urban areas and that are available at rates that are reasonably comparable to rates charged for similar services in urban areas.” This has clearly not happened, especially when you take a look at a 2015 map of broadband deployment that meets the minimum FCC standards in the US. Even more disturbing is to look at certain highly urban areas and find that there are pockets in those areas that are also equally underserved.
It’s been 20 years and the free market has not been able to provide a broadband solution that serves vast swaths of the country. That is primarily due to the cost and time of installing hard fiber to serve small markets that will provide little return. That situation, of course, is exactly the type of need that government is intended to fill and the most current feasible answer is to promote a fixed wireless internet solution in which connections are made from rooftop receivers to a nearby tower.
But the idea that government has a role in providing telecomm services these days is an anathema to the monopolies that control our networks as well as the Republican party. And these companies will spend millions to get their way. In Kentucky, of all places, the state is spending nearly $325 million to lay 3,000 miles of fiber-optic cable in order to connect all municipal buildings in the state’s 120 counties in a project called KentuckyWired. Needless to say, this forward-thinking project was spearheaded by Democratic Governor Steve Beshear, the same man who provided the highly successful Kynect Obamacare program. The city of Louisville realized that it could piggyback on this effort and provide 100 miles of cable to provide high-speed access for all its citizens, especially the severely underserved communities in West Louisville. The cost of piggybacking on KentuckyWired would be just one-third the cost of Louisville providing this network from scratch.
What seemed like a no-brainer, however, ran into serious opposition from not only the cable monopolies but also another, unusual source, a Koch-funded lobbying group called the Taxpayers’ Protection Alliance that claimed that “taxpayer-funded broadband is a waste of money”. After an initial party-line vote in which Republicans on the city council voted down the project, but intense local pressure finally convinced the council to go ahead.
In Fort Collins, Colorado, Comcast has spent over $1 million in an attempt to block that city from going forward with its own municipal broadband network. As in Louisville, that attempt was defeated as the city council amended the city charter to allow the municipal network to go forward.
Where the telecomm monopolies and anti-government interest groups can’t stop these local networks, they turn to their Republican hired hands in the state legislature to ensure access to broadband is limited. In Tennessee and North Carolina, state legislatures have restricted by law the spread of municipal broadband networks. Missouri is considering a similar law. Incredibly, or perhaps not these days, these legislators are actually voting to prevent their own citizens from being able to access one of the great drivers of economic growth.
One of the defining features of the modern American economy is increasing inequality which is reflected in an increasing urban/rural divide. That feature has also infected our country’s politics. One of the most important ways to reduce that urban/rural economic divide is to provide high-speed broadband to every part of this country, in much the same way that the interstate system helped build thriving and productive communities in this country decades ago. Recent history has shown that the telecomm monopolies have no intention of providing that service, despite a mandate to do so. Republicans clearly are going to protect the telecomm monopolies and do not believe in government investment of any kind, except possibly the military. That’s why it is important for Democrats to make and keep their promise to provide high-speed internet access to all Americans in order to help move our economy forward in all areas of the country.