In 2017, the Tennessee state legislature passed a bill designed to expand Internet access in rural areas. At first glance, this might seem have seemed like an amazing display of public service. The challenge that Tennessee and other states face is real: 34 million Americans lack high-speed Internet access, according to a 2016 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Report. Forty percent of these Americans are in rural areas.
In reality, this was just a dressed-up corporate handout. The bill provided $45 million in subsidies for Comcast and AT&T to provide rural Internet access—and to make matters worse, the companies are only required to offer 10Mbps rates, hardly high-speed service.
But what if the government decided access to the Internet was a basic right, and that profit motives didn’t have to be a central part of the equation? As a new generation of politicians is asking whether it’s time for some new ideas, a public option for Internet access—call it “Internet for All”—might fit the bill. According to our research, it appeals to voters in both the deepest blue and the deepest red districts across the country.
And one Democratic primary candidate hopes it can propel him to the biggest surprise win in a Michigan primary since, well, the last time Michigan had a major Democratic primary.
The lack of access to high-speed Internet service is an underrated and serious problem in America. Not only does a significant part of the country lack such access, many more people don’t have a choice in their provider. Almost 60 percent of neighborhoods (developed census blocks, in the FCC’s technical parlance) have either no high-speed Internet access or only one option. Almost 90 percent of neighborhoods have no access at all to Internet speeds of 100 Mbps. And without competition, monopolies can jack up the prices while cutting back on service.
“Internet for All” could provide both access and competition. The idea is simple: Cities, counties, or states could offer high-speed Internet access in a way similar to how they provide other public utilities, but with the caveat that, unlike electricity or water, Americans would be free to contract with Comcast or whomever else they like if they don’t want to use the public option. “Internet for All” would mean both that everyone in America—rural, urban, and suburban alike—would have access to high-speed Internet service, and that the currently monopolistic Internet providers would have a competitive incentive to cut prices and improve their service, lest people sign up for the public broadband.
Abdul El-Sayed, a progressive candidate for governor in Michigan, is pitching this idea to voters. “Corporations shouldn’t be able to rule the information superhighway,” he said. “With the repeal of net neutrality and rise of Internet monopolies that charge too much for subpar service or ignore communities altogether, public broadband has to be part of the resistance to their greed. Everyone deserves access to fast, affordable Internet and right now, corporate ISPs aren’t getting the job done on their own.”