Yes, thank you for asking, I do have some thoughts about universal broadband Internet access. I’ll try to articulate them briefly, but they boil down to the following:
- I think it’s really important from both an economic competitiveness and a social justice perspective.
- I’m not sure yet how I think it should be paid for/charged for.
Major disclaimer: I’m not knowledgeable enough about the significant technical hurdles to implementation to be able to discuss them here, which does not mean I am dismissive of those issues. (The FCC’s National Broadband Plan has a section devoted to addressing barriers to implementation.) However, I do think it’s critical to figure out a way to address them, for the following reasons:
It turns out all kinds of economic benefits accrue to communities where high-speed Internet access is available:
- Health and public-safety outcomes are better because of better access to and dissemination of information
- Economic growth is faster
- More businesses are created, especially technology businesses
- More jobs are created, particularly higher-paying “creative class” jobs
- Home values and market rents are higher (in fact, a British real estate listings company will now include the availability of high-speed broadband in all its listings)
- Retention rates are higher for businesses and residents
- Retail sales are higher
- Tax revenues are higher.
As this World Bank report, whence the above points come, makes clear, broadband is not just infrastructure, but a critical and fundamental basis for organization of an economy. Increasingly I think it will be the basis for economic organization, and communities and households without access will therefore increasingly be shut off from access to economic prosperity. This is not acceptable to me in what is supposed to be a country where success is based on opportunity. Broadband access is becoming as important as education.
Inequality of access to broadband is not random; it is correlated with race and income. (It is also correlated with rural residency, which I’ll touch on briefly below.)
The narrowing of the race-based digital divide has been reversed by the current recession, as the chart on page 2 of this report shows. At the end of 2009, the presence of broadband in African-American households was 70% of what it was in white households, down from a high in 2007 of 83%. Broadband penetration in African-American households was still less than 50%, compared with penetration in white households of 65%.
The income-based differential widened in 2008 (chart on pp. 2 and 3 of the same report). The rate of access in households with incomes of less than $20,000 actually declined that year, while broadband penetration in all other income categories increased. That gap is once again narrowing, but nonetheless, in 2009 households with incomes of less than $20,000 per year had broadband access at less than 40% of the rate of access in households with incomes above $100,000. Penetration in the lowest income bracket was 35% compared with penetration among the highest-income households of 88%.
These numbers suggest to me that broadband is systematically less available to two groups that would most benefit from it: minorities and low-income households. Again, I find that troubling in a land where all are supposedly created equal. This may not have happened through any malicious intent, but that doesn’t mean we should accept it as inevitable.
How should we pay for it?
Broadband has two key characteristics of a public good: The benefits to society outweigh the costs of providing it, as with primary and secondary education, and use by one doesn’t diminish availability to others. (I know, there are problems with traffic and choke points just like with roads, but for purposes of this argument let’s stipulate that usage does not diminish supply.) However, unlike with true public goods there is some private incentive to provide it, which has tended to make public efforts inefficient and unprofitable, and access can be withheld from those who don’t pay for it.
I think broadband increasingly looks like a utility — something that should be available to everyone at some reasonable cost. And as with electricity, incentives will need to be provided to bring broadband infrastructure to areas where it’s not economically attractive for the private market to deliver it, such as in rural communities. But we should be able to expect it to be available to us, just as we do with electricity or cable service.
Some additional things to think about
- Could initial access in low-income and minority communities be increased through a program similar to home weatherization programs?
- Could there be a tax incentive along the lines of the earned-income tax credit to help offset the ongoing costs to low-income households, as a way of encouraging those households to keep access and use it for job-hunting, skills training, education, etc.?
- Is there a need for a digital literacy initiative to help new users take full advantage of the economic benefits of access?
- Should we focus on mobile broadband access, since many households that don’t have wired access do have cell phones?
A very incomplete list of further resources, in no particular order
(with thanks to Jessie Daniels, Ph.D., for the last two)
Extending Reach and Increasing Impact: Information and Communications for Development (World Bank, 2009, Google book; cited above)
Towards Universal Broadband: Flexible Broadband Pricing and the Digital Divide (Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy, August 2009; PDF; cited above)
Universal Broadband: Targeting Investments to Deliver Broadband Services to All Americans (Knight Commission on Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, September 2010; PDF)
FCC’s National Broadband Plan (cited above)
What Role Should Governments Play in Broadband Development? (infoDev report, September 2009)
Establishment of Massachusetts Broadband Institute (legislation)
The Case for a National Broadband Policy (Social Science Research Network paper, June 2007, payment required)
Broadband contributions to economic growth: Lessons from the U.S. experience (Public Utility Research Center, University of Florida, September 2009, payment required)
Emerging Media and Internet Issues: E-Democracy for Connecticut (Connecticut League of Women Voters study report, December 2007)
WiFi: A privilege or an entitlement? (blog post with references)
“From Digital Divides to Digital Entitlements in Knowledge Societies” (article in Current Sociology, PDF)