Throughout the country, politicians are espousing state-level “broadband for all” initiatives. In California, the Internet for All Now Act became law in October of 2017, promising to increase funds for broadband deployment and adoption in rural regions of the state. Under the New NY Broadband Program, 99.9 percent of New Yorkers should have “access to high-speed Internet” by this year’s end. Meanwhile, a number of other states including Tennessee and Wisconsin, have circulated similar legislation.
These policies are often framed as an antidote to the so-called “Digital Divide,” under which 34 million Americans—including 23 million rural residents—lack high-speed Internet access. It is frequently asserted that universal broadband access is an efficient means for people to secure not just access to the web but also education, jobs, and health care. But beneath this narrative’s egalitarian veneer, and politicians’ bromides about the virtue of participating in the “digital economy,” rest many of the canards about bootstrapping that helped cause these inequities in the first place. Universal broadband is a necessary policy—but we shouldn’t let it distract from broader and more urgent deficiencies.
Last July, Representatives Derek Kilmer (D-WA) and Elise Stefanik (R-NY) introduced the Broadband for All Act, which Kilmer states would “ensure rural communities like ours can compete in a 21st century economy,” and which Kilmer and Stefanik’s press release promises would “level the playing field.” According to Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who last year introduced a bill seeking a study on the economic effects of broadband deployment and adoption, “broadband is a great equalizing force for creating jobs, leveling the playing field, and increasing opportunity.”
Similarly, the California Internet for All Now Act affirms that widened broadband access will “promote economic growth, job creation, and the substantial social benefits of advanced information and communications technologies.” The implication here is that broadband is the portal to economic stability for all, a panacea for the ills of poor and rural Americans who couldn’t previously gain access.
The centrist think tank Third Way characterizes universal Internet access as a means of “opportunity to earn.” By Third Way’s own admission, “economic opportunity” is not the same thing as “economic security.” That’s precisely why it’s not enough.
It’s also worth analyzing the noncommittal language employed in broadband-policy literature. Frequently, proposals invoke nebulous, distant terms—“access,” “tools”—that make big promises, but no guarantees. Instead, they invoke legislation akin to the Affordable Care Act, whose focus on increasing “access” to predatory private health insurance, rather than a single-payer system, begat little more than rising premiums and a heftier customer base for the health-care industry.
Unsurprisingly, the broadband-for-all thrust is great for the telecom industry. The aforementioned Internet-expansion bill in Tennessee offered $45 million in subsidies for Comcast and AT&T to provide service far below the criteria for “high-speed.” Relatedly, Microsoft has waged a campaign to connect all of rural America—a move Axios calls “smart business,” particularly for the company’s cloud division.
It’s no coincidence, then, that Klobuchar and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) have received visits from groups such as the Wireless Infrastructure Association, whose members include AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon.
All of this isn’t to say that we don’t need universal broadband access; we unequivocally do. The problem isn’t that centrist technocrats seek to broaden Internet access; it’s how they seek to broaden it. As others have argued, leaders should embrace the conceit of Internet access for all, but instead of funneling millions of additional dollars to telecom giants, dedicate broadband policy to serving the public, like any other public utility. At the local level, this prospect has already proven feasible and popular—perhaps a glimpse into how a piecemeal, inchoate series of projects might mature into a robust nationwide public infrastructure.
Of course, even a fully nationalized Internet is not enough to make the economy work for the many and not the few. It’s convenient to peddle technology as a societal deus ex machina, swooping in to save poor and rural America. But if broadband hasn’t reduced poverty in the starkly unequal urban foci of New York and Los Angeles, where it’s relatively plentiful, or in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where it’s a much–heralded, publicly owned municipal service, how can we know it will help those on the other side of the “Digital Divide”?
Contrary to the assumptions written into “bipartisan” broadband doctrine, no form of technology, no matter how vast (or fast), will reverse cuts to welfare imposed by both Republican and Democratic administrations over the past three decades. Broadband must be provided not only universally but also equitably, and as part of a far more comprehensive social program—otherwise, the “opportunity” will only arise for those who’ve had it all along.
An earlier version of this article inaccurately described the New NY State Broadband program; it is not a bill, but an initiative being enacted by the Empire State Development agency. The text has been corrected.