You know the internet. We use it for almost literally everything. Food. Transportation. Entertainment. Education. But in the U.S., there’s still areas without internet access. We’re somewhere at the bottom of the list when you look at leading developed nations in terms of broadband penetration, broadband speeds and broadband prices. In fact, 10% of Americans don’t have broadband internet, which means they can’t even stream this video you’re watching right now. It’s not a question of just lacking access to the internet. It’s more like lacking the full capacity to use the internet in the way that it’s being used. The difficulty of getting online is a really big deal for the almost 5 million American households with school-age children.
Why? Because that’s a lot of students who may be unable to complete their digital assignments. Lack of internet access is such a concern, some school districts have equipped school buses with routers so students can get online. The discussion about internet access is really about this: Is access to the internet a human right? Hey fam, I’m Imaeyen, and this Sunday on AJ+ we’re exploring what it’s like to live in a digitally connected nation and yet have limited or no internet access. Maybe you’ve already heard about the United States’ digital divide. There are a lot of Americans with limited or no access to the internet. In rural America, 39% of Americans lack broadband access. But what’s surprising is how many people in big cities like Detroit and Miami lack access to broadband. And what we mean by lacking access is having a broadband connection slower than 25 megabits per second for downloads, and 3 megabits per second for uploads. With that connection speed, a family of four would be unable to independently stream four HD movies simultaneously. An estimated 4% of urban homes are underserved when it comes to internet access. And it’s forced people like small business owner Atreese Watkins to come up with workarounds to get online. Sometimes you can do stuff like go to a cafe. But again, it’s like how many $4 lattes are you paying for in order to administer your business like three or four days a week? Watkins’ limited internet access extends to her work and home. For her, getting online is cost-prohibitive. It would cost about like 90 bucks with most standard service providers. Her struggle isn’t unique. Broadband is expensive, and the cost makes it unaffordable for many. Nearly half of Americans with household incomes below $30,000 a year have no home broadband at all. And low-income homes with children are four times more likely to lack broadband as middle- or high-income families. What’s even more stunning is how the price of the broadband in the U.S. compares with other countries. I’ll let communications professor Victor Pickard explain. Compared to other leading democracies around the world, the U.S. typically has lower speeds, poorer services and much more expensive services, in comparison. An analysis of internet prices in the U.S. and France found the costs in the United States were as much as three and a half times higher than those in France for similar service. And it’s not like the U.S. is getting more for all that extra money. The nation only ranks 10th in the world, behind places like South Korea, Norway and Sweden, when it comes to broadband. So not only are customers in the United States paying more, they’re also getting fewer choices with slower speeds. But the connectivity issue is about more than affordability. It disproportionately affects communities of color, poor communities, rural communities, so it’s still very much a major social problem in the United States today. Even low-income-area residents who can afford home internet often have to deal with very slow speeds. This year, three African-American low-income residents of Cleveland, Ohio, filed a complaint with the FCC. The women claim AT&T has withheld high-speed infrastructure from the overwhelming majority of census blocks with individual poverty rates above 35%. It’s a practice some call digital redlining. In their complaint, they accused AT&T of “unjust and unreasonable discrimination.” Which, if true, would be a violation of the Communications Act. Or at least it was. But that was before FCC Chairman Ajit Pai garnered enough votes to overturn the regulation. By the way, that’s the same ruling that killed net neutrality. Pai has also suggested lowering the goalpost for what constitutes acceptable speeds for broadband. And that could affect how much funding is available to expand broadband networks into rural or low-income areas. So people who are underserved might be deemed to have acceptable internet speeds. Ajit Pai is also the man who suggested a smartphone can be your primary vehicle to get online. Which is curious, because he’s also the guy who began scaling back internet and phone subsidies for low-income families. Even if you accept using a smartphone as a primary source for internet access as reasonable, realize that 23% of all smartphone owners have had to cancel service at some point because of costs. Low-income smartphone owners are even more likely to drop the service because of price. And that’s a problem in a world where we do so much online. Access to broadband is no longer a luxury. It’s a necessity. For everything ranging from education, to health, to livelihood, not to mention entertainment, or just getting information, communicating with our loved ones, we have to have access to broadband services. You also need broadband to make it easier to run your small business. As Atreese Watkins has discovered, not having it can cost you. It was really difficult for me to start accepting credit card payments. There were people who stopped wanting to do business with me because I wouldn’t. And if I’m at a venue where I have bad cell signal and there’s no wi-fi, I can’t make sure I got paid. I can’t make sure my payment processed. We use the internet daily, just like water or, say, electricity. Can you imagine the nation having the same debate we’re having about internet access about electricity? Oh wait, you don’t have to, because we already did. In 1932, only about 10% of rural America had electricity, and about half of those people had to buy their own power plants. You had very similar discussions about whether electricity should be seen as a necessity or a luxury. It parallels many of the discussions we’re having today around broadband access. Should the internet be seen as a necessity? Is it even a human right, as some would argue? We don’t go in and tell people that they can have more or less water pressure based on how much they pay their water bill. We don’t tell people whether they can have dim or bright lights based on how much they pay. Today, we don’t consider electricity a luxury. It’s a utility. Harvard law professor Susan Crawford says high-speed internet access has the potential to affect the U.S.’s economic growth the way electricity did. So should we regulate internet accessibility in the same way we do electricity? That’s not on Pai’s to-do list. He believes the FCC is “restoring internet freedom” by by deregulating and “eliminating burdensome and unnecessary requirements.” He claims that’ll free up ISPs like Comcast and AT&T to invest in the necessary infrastructure to improve connectivity for underserved Americans. But Pickard doesn’t believe that’s true. He says Pai’s actions are less deregulation and more reregulation, as Pai’s FCC is basically restructuring the industry to serve corporate interests. He says there’s little incentive for ISPs to provide consumers with a better service. Over the internet’s lifetime, the ISP market has consolidated to the point where there are just two companies providing access. In some parts of the country, there’s only one, which is effectively a monopoly. And it gets more problematic. Millions are actually forced to choose a company that’s blocked certain applications. One option for improving access for Americans is municipally owned internet service providers. It’s what Chattanooga, Tennessee, has done. Its citywide fiber internet network is among the fastest and most affordable internet in the country. And it’s even got a nickname: the Gig. And the city built it itself. Comcast and AT&T didn’t like that, and they sued four times. But Chattanooga won. Here’s what happened next. An independent study published by University of Tennessee found the network could be directly tied to the creation of between 2,800 and 5,200 new jobs. It also said the economic benefits for the city have been roughly $1 billion over the course of the last five years. But Chattanooga’s success poses a great challenge to the telecom industry, which has lobbied states across the country to ban or limit similar experiments. Many states, about 20 as a matter of fact, have passed laws that make this very difficult. Basically, they have succumbed to telecommunication industry lobbying and passed laws that give internet service providers the first right of refusal, so that municipalities aren’t even allowed by law to try to create these community broadband networks. Because of lobbyists, there’s a Tennessee law that makes it illegal for Chattanooga’s network to expand out into surrounding areas. And they’re forbidden from offering internet to customers at rates that are less than the actual cost of providing the service. If we turn accessing the technology itself into the market, that’s a whole other market we have to go through in order to just be viable. And like I said, if you’re not on certain platforms, you don’t exist online, so it literally gives those providers the power to tax folks out of existence. Hey guys, thanks so much for watching. Don’t forget to like, share and subscribe. And what I want to know is if any of you, or people you know, have trouble getting online. Tell us your stories in the comments below, and don’t forget to come back next Sunday when we have another great video.