Thankful for broadband internet, and hopeful for much more
Where would we be without our internet this year?
We’ve shopped, worked, studied and taught, job hunted, and cared for each other online this year in ways we haven’t before—not to mention entertained ourselves plenty too. As so many of us have faced challenges and outright adversity this year, it’s difficult to imagine what this year would have been like without the support of a reliable broadband internet connection. So much so, you can argue that it’s become a necessity.
For that, I’m thankful—and recognize that we have a long way to go before all of us can share in those same thanks. As I’ve mentioned in earlier blogs, fixed broadband internet access at home remains elusive for many. In the U.S. alone, one analysis shows that more than 150 million people do not use the internet at broadband speeds, which is practically half of the U.S. population.
What is broadband internet?
A good question to ask here is what exactly constitutes “broadband?” The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines broadband speeds as 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) of download speed and 3 Mbps of upload speed. (Note that the FCC estimates only 21 million people in the U.S. are without broadband, a number widely considered to be low.)
Put in everyday terms, 25 Megabits per second of download speed is baseline figure that should provide a family of two to four people with enough capacity to engage in bandwidth-hungry activities like working from home, schooling online, or even receiving medical care through telemedicine, along with streaming to stay entertained and informed too.
As we look at that figure of 150 million underserved people, we see people who live in remote areas that simply aren’t wired for broadband yet, representing millions of rural residents and people living on tribal lands. Additionally, it also includes people in urban areas who potentially have access to a broadband connection, yet their income levels impact their ability to subscribe to it.
Obviously, a major hurdle in rolling out broadband nationwide is the 1.9 billion acres that makes up our country. The physical, technological, and financial efforts associated with building fixed broadband access across rural and remote terrain are substantial to say the least. Additionally, there are regulatory matters as well, like the rules that govern access to existing utility poles and conduits needed for broadband deployment.
Broadband is no longer a luxury, it’s a utility
Ultimately, we’re talking about connecting not just homes, but entire communities—people, businesses, libraries, granges, local government, and more. Getting them access to broadband isn’t just a commercial interest, it’s a matter of infrastructure as well. Just as water and electricity are utilities, we can argue that the internet, broadband internet, has long since evolved into a utility. The reasons are clear: education, economic growth, employment and even access to healthcare all stand to improve when broadband is available to a community, as has been seen in communities such as Chattanooga, Tennessee and in Delta County, Colorado. Thus it makes sense that connecting them has become a joint endeavor by the public and private sector.
Meanwhile, last summer, the lack of adequate broadband across Nebraska during the pandemic prompted the state’s governor and legislature to allocate pandemic relief funds and pass bills that would speed the deployment of broadband across the state. As reported by the Omaha World-Herald, one of Nebraska’s rural power district managers said of fixed broadband service, “It goes beyond economic development, it goes beyond watching Netflix, there’s some real business implications here.”
However, even in communities where broadband is physically available, pockets of low-speed connectivity exist as well. According to the Pew Research Center, only 53 percent of adults with an income under $30,000 had broadband access at home. For those with an income of between $30,000 and $100,000, that figure takes a major leap up to 81%. Instead, lower-income Americans turn to their smartphones for all their internet access. From the findings:
“As of early 2019, 26% of adults living in households earning less than $30,000 a year are “smartphone-dependent” internet users–meaning they own a smartphone but do not have broadband internet at home. In contrast, only 5% of those living in households earning $100,000 or more fall into this category in 2019.”
Smartphones alone aren’t enough
What does a smartphone-only internet life might look like? Pew Research Center put that into perspective in a survey where respondents were asked about job hunting on the internet. Some 32% of people with a reported household income of under $30,000 said that they submitted a job application by phone. For those households making more than $75,000, that figure was just 7%. (Cost is certainly a factor, yet it is encouraging to see that the reported average cost of broadband in the U.S. is dropping—down to $50 a month from just over $67 a month a year ago.)
That’s just one example of a smartphone-only internet, yet you can imagine how difficult it must be to create a resume, complete schoolwork, or work remotely when your internet experience is limited to the small screen of a phone. Contrast that with this year’s need to work and study at home. A low-income household that’s dependent on smartphones misses out. Their internet is a less useful and less productive internet experience. They simply can’t work, learn, and train at home like fully connected households can.
The road to broadband for all
My hope in sharing this issue with you is so that we can all gain a bit of perspective. Far fewer people have access to a broadband internet experience than we might initially think, which results in a lack of connectivity that stunts the benefits and opportunities they and their communities can realize.
Granted, the solution for increasing broadband access largely rests with state-level broadband offices, budgeting and legislation at the federal government level, along with public partnerships and interest groups who are all pushing for improved broadband access. (And, in the states which allow it, municipal broadband solutions.) However, as individuals, we can let this reality shape some of our decision-making on a local level.
When library funding measures come up for approval in your community, consider giving them your “yes” vote, as they may present an opportunity to fund library locations and services where people can access free broadband. Likewise, give school levies your consideration, they may help get a computer in the hands of a student who doesn’t have one. (An 11% increase in PC, Mac, and Chromebook sales this year was largely driven by the education market, which needed to supply computers for in-home learning.) These are just a couple of ways that we can “think global, act local” and help others get access to a full broadband internet experience.
So as Thanksgiving approaches, let’s indeed say thanks for the connectivity and internet experience so many of us enjoy—and how vital that was this year. Likewise, let’s remember that our country and the communities within it still have a way to go before the overwhelming majority of us can benefit from that same experience—so that they can enjoy and be thankful for it too.
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