As we approach the third month of nationwide social distancing orders, many of us have become accustomed to our new life indoors thanks to the plethora of activities and connections internet access can provide. However, for many of my fellow Americans in small towns and rural communities, high-speed fiber optic internet connection is a luxury that they simply do not have access to. In today’s age, especially during a global pandemic where online communication has replaced all in-person gatherings, high-speed internet access is a utility that is just as vital as electricity, sewage, or water access.
My internet connection can transfer more than 600 million bits per second (each way) over the internet. That means I could stream (or upload) high definition 4K video for 32 different movies simultaneously. Okay, 32 may be pushing it a little, but I could definitely handle 20 people streaming HD 4K video, attending classes via zoom, doing video conferences, and playing multiplayer video games all at the same time — although I would have to think about how to arrange 20 people in my apartment with everyone being six feet apart.
And it’s not because I pay a fortune for internet service. My internet bill is about average for Americans. It is because I live in Manhattan. Manhattan has a population density over one thousand times greater than the state of Iowa. That means that laying fiber optics cable in Iowa has (more-or-less) over one thousand times higher cost per person than laying fiber optics cables here where I live. So, the free market system is not likely to produce high-speed internet connections in rural Iowa anytime soon.
This is a problem, because those of us who live in parts of Iowa, and a bunch of other rural places, do not have the opportunities enjoyed by those of us who are rich and live in big expensive cities.
There are different ways to view that situation. One response is: yes, that is how the free market system works.
Another response is that every major American innovation (including the internet) was made possible by government intervention, and there is no reason that providing internet service to every American can’t also be made possible by government intervention.
- The original airlines were heavily subsidized by the US Postal Service
- Electricity was made possible for millions of American by the Tennessee Valley Authority (paid for by the US Government)
- Telephone service was provided to millions of Americans at way below cost by the Communications Act of 1934.
- Cornelius Vanderbilt became the richest man in the world, partially because of the over 120 million acres of land given to the railroad industry as subsidies.
- The internet was originally called the D-ARPA net for Defense Advanced Research Project Agency Network, because it was all paid for by an agency of the federal government.
And we can do it again. We can provide internet service to Iowa, Kansas, and Michigan’s upper peninsula, and all of the other places where our fellow countrymen want to live and don’t enjoy the access to the internet that I have.
The same framework that made the Tennessee Valley Authority work for electricity can make a new Ohio River Valley Authority work for broadband internet.
Congress should establish a new authority, with a mandate to operate in any part of the United States which does not have access to high-speed internet and to invest sufficient capital to create either high-speed connections or 5G (or 6G or whatever comes next) service available to everyone. This authority will be funded by a combination of federal money and revenue from its service (priced at the same prices as competitive services in other places).
This pandemic has shown us that high-speed internet access is no longer a luxury resource – it’s a vital necessity to be a fully engrained member of our modern society. We don’t want to further the divide between haves and have-nots — it’s time the government treated internet service as the vital utility that it is.