The authors of a new report that illustrates broadband availability and subscription rates by neighborhood say that bringing high-speed Internet access to all Americans is a long-term and nuanced challenge — one that if solved could be vital to the nation’s economic future.
The report, conducted by the Brookings Institution and dubbed Signs of Digital Distress, takes public data about broadband usage that was recently made available by the Federal Communications Commission and presents it in an accessible format that is also heavy with context. Adie Tomer, one of the authors of the report, said that discussing broadband in terms of where it’s physically available has long been the dominant thread of our national discussion, but the report found that broadband subscription rates in areas where the service is available are significant as well.
Creating the infrastructure to offer broadband availability throughout the whole of the rural United States remains a crucial challenge, one often targeted by state legislation, but Tomer said having broadband available everywhere may not be enough. It is also important that policymakers be aware of subscription rates in their jurisdictions, possibly also creating goals to make sure people understand how to get broadband, why they need broadband and, of course, that said broadband is affordable.
“The bigger challenge in the digital divide, and really a part that a lot of the media doesn’t really cover, partially because the policy folks don’t cover it that much either, is the adoption side, or subscription side, formally,” Tomer said. “There we see much bigger gaps. Why these maps matter is that, in fact, there are major gaps nationally in terms of broadband subscription levels in nearly every community across the country.”
Tomer said the subscription rate issue is often framed as one of personal choice, as electricity and phone lines were in the past, but as the world rapidly modernizes and high-speed Internet becomes vital for things like seeking health care, applying for jobs, and, perhaps most important, school work, it may require a regulatory utility model to ensure services are delivered everywhere, as well as information campaigns so that parents understand why their children simply must grow up with a regular connection to high-speed Internet.
The stakes are high, too, with American economic viability potentially hinging on having a homegrown workforce that is knowledgeable and savvy in the online arena.
“We want to make sure our economy is competitive in the digital age, but the thing that’s competing with it is we’re trying to leave this massive component up to individual liberty on whether families should be subscribed to a broadband connection, and those do not speak well to each other,” Tomer said. “If we want to be competitive in the digital age, we need everyone connected to the Internet, we need them to develop the skills that are built by using it.”
Tomer is hopeful that this report — likely the first of its kind to take such a broad and detailed look at broadband subscription rates — will be a starting point for future research, potentially looking into why certain neighborhoods have low subscription rates and into the full extent of the gap’s negative impact. He praised jurisdictions that have been creating initiatives to foster digital equity throughout their communities.
Indeed, this has become an increasingly prevalent concern for local government. In fact, this year marked the first time that many municipal governments participated in National Digital Inclusion Week by hosting events in their communities aimed at teaching residents better computing skills, as well as at coordinating efforts to increase broadband availability and subscriptions.
Cities like New Orleans, Kansas City, Mo., and Seattle have launched various digital equity initiatives, while Boston has hired a Digital Equity Advocate to expressly work on getting the entire community connected. As research continues to show that digital inequity adversely impacts a city not only economically, but also in areas like housing and health, cross-departmental collaboration to solve these problems has also increased.
Tomer said one vital thing that could be done at the federal level to help focus these local agency efforts is to establish a stated objective: a set date to have every American connected.
Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.