According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, 70 percent of Americans now subscribe to broadband Internet service at home, and an additional 10 percent of Americans have broadband access at home via a smartphone.
That’s the good news.
The not-so-good news is that 20 percent of Americans lack a home broadband connection altogether. Crunch a few numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau and you’ll find that 20 percent amounts to more than 62 million Americans who are stuck in the dark ages when it comes to being online.
While the Pew report notes that a portion of these Americans have made the choice not to adopt broadband, many, especially in rural areas, don’t have access to broadband service even if they wanted it.
Given how vital connectivity is these days, closing this “availability gap” should be a priority for rural residents and policymakers. We live in an age when access to a reliable, speedy Internet connection provides more than entertainment. It’s critical for work, finding a job, education — basically, for finding a place in America’s current digital economy.
Closing the gap, however, comes with a hefty price tag — government alone cannot shoulder this burden, as it requires billions of dollars in private investment to bring high-speed Internet access across our vast nation. America’s broadband service providers must play a key role in modernizing and upgrading our nation’s communications infrastructure. This effort promises to connect more of the country than ever before with modern, next-generation, high-speed broadband services.
In Washington, D.C., people refer to this upgrade as a “transition”. In actuality, it’s more of an evolution — the logical next-step in delivering communications services. More fiber optics in more places. Expanded availability of blazing fast broadband instead of voice-only service. Advanced wireless Internet access in every pocket of the country.
But to encourage this private investment, important regulatory decisions need to be made quickly by our government officials in Sacramento and Washington and even in our local communities. From the national oversight at the Federal Communication Commission to municipal planning board decisions to speed local infrastructure deployment, policymakers and regulators must try to keep up with the demands of Americans who seek to take advantage of new technology and faster broadband connections.
Even to the extent that onerous regulatory barriers to private investment are removed, pockets of the country may remain without access to high-speed broadband. Just like they did more than a century ago when they prioritized connecting every household and business to the telephone network, policymakers must now prioritize that all Americans, even those in hard-to-reach rural areas, have access to high-speed broadband networks. That’s where targeted programs such as the FCC’s Connect America Fund, designed to subsidize the high cost of rural broadband buildout, come into play.
There are certainly regulatory and cost barriers to upgrading our nation’s communications networks, but every hurdle can and must be surmounted. Access to high-speed Internet is simply too important for it not to be available to everyone, regardless of where they live. Only if the private and public sector work together can the goal of universal broadband access be achieved.
Mike Montgomery is executive director of CALinnovates, a California-based technology coalition advocating for the needs of the state’s technology community and consumers.