The Path Forward
Three different tactics have been deployed to address the digital divide – public, private, and non-profit. These three domains will have to work in tandem to address the highly correlated challenge of income inequality and internet inequality. The best solutions are to provide hotspots to students, to subsidize the cost of connecting low-income communities, and to increase competition in broadband markets to drive down prices.
🇺🇸 Public sector solutions – In June 2020, Representative Jim Clyburn introduced a $100 billion bill (H.R. 7302) to help bring high speed internet to rural communities. The bill is the largest Congressional effort ever seen to address internet inequality, with $80 billion going towards broadband infrastructure spending, and the rest going towards creating more affordable and accessible options. Congress is not acting alone though. The Department of Agriculture has created a Rural Utilities Service and ReConnect program; the Department of Commerce has deployed billions through its Broadband Technologies Opportunity Program and State Broadband Initiative; and the FCC similarly has helped ISPs set up networks through its Universal Service Fund and Connect America Fund and helped families through its E-Rate program and $9.95/month subsidy through Lifeline.
🛰 Private Sector Solutions – ISPs like Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast have created various programs to increase coverage and close the digital divide. Comcast’s “Internet Essentials” program offers low-cost 25mbps internet for $9.95/month to households that can show they’ve used public assistance programs like housing assistance or food stamps. ISPs typically rely on government support to connect rural areas since this can be costly, just like it was when America first started electrifying rural areas. While fiber has the potential to provide cheaper and faster internet, it has not yet shown promising results and the cost of laying fiberoptic cables can run $50-$500 per foot.
🧑💻 Non-Profit Solutions – US non-profits have focused on both short-term and long-term solutions. In the short-term, non-profits like Mobile Citizen, Mobile Beacon and No One Left Offline have helped deploy WiFi hotspots and affordable internet plans to families in need. They have also helped schools put WiFi networks on school buses so children can park nearby to complete homework. In the long-term, non-profits have helped cities and towns create their own municipal networks by setting up towers and negotiating contracts. However, these efforts have recently run into setbacks. 22 states actually ban municipal broadband, meaning that private companies have to be the ones to provide internet. Municipal networks often increase competition, thereby lowering prices.