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.