POLITICS JANUARY 5, 2011
How Obama’s bid to expand Internet access ran into big trouble.
In his 61 years, my father has never sent me an e-mail, never purchased a personal computer, never thought to acquire a home Internet connection. A welder, he has little use for the latest software at work; at home, he prefers handwritten letters, and he still obtains his news in print-only form. Recently, when I asked him why he never thought to get wired, he looked perplexed. He shrugged and said, “Never saw the need.” No, he is not nostalgic for a past era or hopelessly impoverished. He is what techies call a “non-adopter,” someone who has, for a variety of reasons and to the bewilderment of most, missed the Internet revolution.
He is not alone. More than a quarter of Americans do not have home Internet access and more than a third lack a high-speed, broadband connection. Compared to 30 other industrialized countries, the U.S. ranks fifteenth in broadband quality and penetration. The most egregious disparities are predictable: The poor, the disabled, minorities, and seniors have abysmal rates of broadband use. Ostensibly the most powerful, prosperous, technologically advanced country in the world has left over a fourth of its citizens disconnected.
President Obama has made closing this digital divide a priority. In December 2008, when he signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, he declared that we would “renew our information superhighway.” The $787 billion stimulus allotted $7.2 billion for the increase of broadband use in rural and underserved areas, and mandated the creation of a National Broadband Plan (NBP) by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to devise a way to connect 100 million more Americans—a third of the U.S. population—with affordable broadband by 2020. It has been nine months since the NBP was delivered to Congress, and those billions of dollars have been handed out. And yet, we are only slightly better off than we were at the outset.
Universal broadband has been compared to the great American infrastructure projects of the twentieth century: the development of a highway system, widespread telephone service, and readily available electricity. The most apt comparison might be the last. In the 1920s, when some 90 percent of urban Americans had electricity, nearly 90 percent of rural Americans did not. It took the Great Depression and the New Deal to muster support for a government-sponsored expansion of the electrical grid. The FCC has adopted a similar mantle, stating in the NBP: “Like electricity a century ago, broadband is a foundation for economic growth, job creation, global competiveness, and a better way of life.”
Despite people like my father, who don’t necessarily want this “better way of life,” the FCC’s stance is correct. Would we have let hundreds of thousands of Americans go without power in the 1930s simply because they had never turned on a light switch? The Internet has become an essential portal to jobs, information, and education. As Ken Eisner, whose organization, One Economy, works for greater broadband access, says: “We often talk about broadband as a twenty-first-century civil right.”
Broadband and digital literacy also directly affect America’s global economic competitiveness. Other countries are years ahead of us: Ninety-five percent of South Koreans have broadband in their homes, while only 65 percent of Americans possess comparable access. (As The Oregonian editorial page put it in March, “the National Broadband plan would have been a brilliant stroke in, say, 1999.”) Though the U.S. is dealing with a more expansive geography and a more sparsely distributed population than many other countries, there’s agreement that such mediocrity is a problem. A 2009 report issued by the non-profit Information Technology and Innovation Foundation ranked the U.S. last out of 40 countries in terms of its rate of innovation progress—a measure that included the penetration of broadband. (China, on the same scale, ranked first.) “For me, that is the canary in the coalmine,” FCC Chair Julius Genachowski told me. “It tells us that moving forward at the rate we’re moving is really falling behind.”
The $7.2 billion has begun to address some of these failings. It has been used to provide a fiber-optic network in rural Maine, get high-speed wireless through tribal lands in Oklahoma, and set up public computer centers in cities like Chicago and Baltimore. And, for the first time, thanks to stimulus-funded mapping, we will have statistics relating to the places that lack broadband.
But the problem is that $7.2 billion is nowhere near enough to re-pave the information superhighway. Experts estimate that in order to match what say, Sweden or land-rich Australia, have done for broadband implementation, we would have to spend upwards of $30 billion. In 2009, a FCC task force projected that it would take a whopping $350 billion (from a variety of public and private sources) to connect every American with the highest grade of broadband. The FCC wants at least $16 billion to implement just the primary proposals of the NBP.
Even if the FCC is able to obtain these funds, it faces additional hurdles: getting people to see the importance of its projects and getting them to actually use the technology. Over half of Americans (53 percent) do not think the government should prioritize affordable broadband access, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. And, according to a Commerce Department report, almost half of those without Internet at home report they “don’t need it” or are “not interested”; cost and availability were only minor concerns. (“Never saw the need,” as my father said.) Ask Blair Levin, executive director of the NBP, what he would have done differently and he points to public education: “I don’t think we explained well why this was really important.”
Sadly, he might have missed his chance. In April, the FCC was scolded by a federal court for overstepping its bounds, leading some to conclude that it will need congressional approval to do much of anything, a prospect that is increasingly unlikely now that Republicans—many of whom are hostile to the FCC’s proposals—control the House. Last month, Oregon Representative Greg Walden, an outspoken FCC critic, was selected to head the House Communications Subcommittee.
Achieving better Internet access will not be easy, but widespread broadband access is essential. For every person like my father who has opted out of the Internet revolution, there are communities of people who are scrambling to catch up. Last November, I visited such a place: the Sandy Run School in Calhoun County, South Carolina, where more than half the students lack home Internet access. In 2009, to ensure that their students gain some digital skills, the K-8 school received 200 laptops from a statewide program that serves the state’s neediest schools.
In one classroom at Sandy Run, third-graders navigated to an online article titled “Time Really is Money.” I sat and watched as the page loaded at a painfully slow pace, with some laptops failing to connect at all, and the kids growing increasingly antsy around me. The culprit appeared to be the unreliable wireless that Sandy Run shares with the neighboring high school. These students—the beneficiaries of a special program that provides them with the latest hardware—are better off than many, but they still suffer because of a fundamental infrastructure flaw. “Be patient,” the teacher told the class. “Sometimes it moves faster than others.” We, on the other hand, might do better to heed the message of the children’s assignment when it comes to high-speed Internet access: Time is money, and we don’t have any to spare.
Tiffany Stanley is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.