Academic Expert Says Internet Has Become a Vital Utility

Internet access touches every aspect of day-to-day life, from applying for jobs or to schools and seeking medical information to doing the required work for school or a career, one professor says.

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(TNS) — Joshua Wells, a professor at Indiana University South Bend, recalled standing at a Walmart looking for a specific pair of work boots. He said he knew the store carried the boot in his size because he used the company website to confirm.

As he looked for the size he needed, Wells said a man entered the aisle looking for a pair of boots. Wells told the man that he could use the Walmart website to search which store has the boots he wants in his size.

The man told Wells he didn’t have internet access.

“He needs those boots to work. I looked it up for him, and I found a pair that he wanted at a different Walmart. But, why should he have to depend on the luck of having somebody sitting there who is kind enough to do it for him? That’s not fair to that guy,” Wells said.

Wells, an associate professor of social informatics, said that internet “is at a stage where we have to think of it as a vital utility.” Internet access touches every aspect of day-to-day life, from applying for jobs or to schools and seeking medical information to doing the required work for school or a career, he said.

“Our society is already dependent on information that flows through the internet,” Wells said.

But, like most utilities, there are racial and economic inequities in internet access, Wells said. The American Jobs Plan aims to invest $100 billion toward “affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to every American” including the more than 35% of rural Americans without access, according to a plan fact sheet.

In Indiana, 12.4% of Hoosiers live in areas where there is no broadband infrastructure that provides minimally acceptable speeds, according to the fact sheet. Where broadband infrastructure is available, broadband may be too expensive, and 16% of Indiana households do not have an internet subscription, according to the fact sheet.

The broadband element of the plan is “a bold, but achievable goal,” Wells said. The fact that the plan lists broadband right along drinking water and electricity shows President Joe Biden’s administration realized that internet access can keep those systems running, Wells said.

For example, Wells said, South Bend uses a nationally recognized smart sewer system, which allows for monitoring and controlling the way waste water flows using internet connected gating. The smart sewer system is the less expensive and less time consuming option compared to physically replacing the sewer system, he said.

Farmers in Indiana use broadband for their equipment, to access information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other government agencies, to track weather and monitor soil, Wells said.

Veterans use broadband to connect with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to be connected with health services, Wells said. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the need for broadband access at homes for students to continue their education and parents to continue working while keeping communities safe.

Over the last decade, there has been a push to increase internet access in rural and urban communities, Wells said.

“Where it happens, quality of life improves. People can get more information, they can get more services, they stay connected with people in their community better,” Wells said.

Having access to information can help people save time instead of searching for an item they need, like work boots, Wells said. Having access to internet saves money, Wells said, for example, if someone has to do a home project they could search what the work requires and possibly do it themselves.

“Information is a proxy for time and money. (Information) helps people better organize their time and not waste it,” Wells said.

At the federal government level, Wells said there has been strong bipartisan support to sharing information about services online and expanding broadband access.

“The availability of internet information has strong, universal support across the country,” Wells said.

On April 20, Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a law that will direct $250 million to expand broadband access to schools and rural health clinics that don’t have access to 1,000 mbps download speeds.

The law also creates a grant program, particularly for Hoosier students, unable to afford high-speed internet access once it is extended to their communities.

State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, said he drafted the bill to address the greatest need for internet access in the state. The pandemic has shown that students and health clinics need reliable internet access, Soliday said.

Soliday, who has worked on broadband legislation in previous sessions, said the challenges of expanding broadband are securing the supply and finding the trained workforce needed for installation.

“People don’t realize how expensive and how labor intensive it is,” Soliday said.

The American Jobs Plan is “rolling out so rapidly“ that it’s not yet clear where the federal government will get the supply needed to install the broadband and who will do the installation work.

For that reason, Soliday said he drafted the bill to get started on expanding broadband with the stipulation that whatever federal funding does become available for broadband to spend those funds first.

“If (the American Jobs Plan) works, and it works efficiently, and we don’t wind up spending it to build over what's already been built and we use it to reach the unreached, then I think it’s a great deal,” Soliday said.

© 2021 the Herald-Times (Bloomington, Ind.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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