In the last two months, billions of people have started working and educating their kids from home, underscoring the necessity of fast, at-home Internet (“broadband”). Yet in the United States, one in four households has no broadband at home. And those who can pay for it mostly get bad deals: U.S. residents, on average, pay more money for slower Internet than the rest of the developed world.
Like electricity in the late nineteenth century, broadband deployment today largely follows the profit motives of private providers. This approach leaves many poor neighborhoods — in cities, and especially in rural areas — in digital darkness. Ten percent of Americans, and nearly 40 percent of those living in rural areas, have no option, at any price, to subscribe to broadband where they live. They will continue to be left behind unless we are willing to create broadband networks where the private market has not and will not.
To bridge these digital divides, the federal government should direct new grants to communities to build their own publicly-owned networks (“public broadband”). Years ago, I made the case for public broadband in the Yale Journal of Law and Technology. I argued that, in many communities, broadband should be built, delivered, and maintained as a public service — like water, electricity, and roads. I also laid out legal and political strategies to help communities build these networks.
One example of such a network, among many, is in Chattanooga, Tennessee, whose public broadband network is now among the fastest and most affordable in the world. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance maintains a fuller list of America’s public broadband networks here.
Just last week, House Democrats announced a plan to invest nearly $100 billion of new broadband infrastructure, including build-out grants and guaranteeing the right of local governments to deliver public broadband. Good. But we should keep careful eye on the proposal’s details as they emerge, to make sure the funds go to communities — and are not just another handout to private providers like Comcast.
This pandemic has demonstrated unequivocally that broadband is an essential public service. It is high time for our leaders, both national and local, to step up and treat it like one. Public broadband networks, funded via new federal grants directed to communities, are a good place to start.
My article, “A Light in Digital Darkness: Public Broadband after Tennessee v. FCC,” is available here.