As social distancing presses on, remote work and education become more of a need than a preference. So, how does this impact communities with less access?
While breaking bread at a Friendsgiving this past Fall, a couple with a child explained their homeschooling experience. Among several challenges, one of the points they mentioned was about their son’s classmate. Every day he sits at the tables outside of Taco Bell with his younger siblings so he can connect to his virtual classroom. He’s seven.
Access not just to technological devices but to the infrastructure that allows those devices to connect with the world is fast becoming a point of urgency. The presidential election was another opportunity to shine a light on the lack of access that plagues some communities either because tech is not affordable or because network capabilities are not up to par. A controversial question still being debated today is this: should we treat internet speed and access as an essential public utility? Is tech a human right?
The worldwide web was open to the public in 1991, and the first cable modems, which control speed and Wi-Fi, were released in 2005. That was 15 years ago, and since then, we have come quite far. As our society becomes more dependent on the internet, it’s essential to understand how it works—things like data plans and internet speed and how they relate to where we live.
In 2009, internet speeds across the country averaged 5 Mbps (megabits per second). To put this into perspective, one user streaming a non-HD video on Netflix takes about 3 Mbps. That internet speed hasn’t changed much in the last decade, but our usage sure has. Ten years ago, most people had only one or two devices operating at once. Today, given the same Mbps allotment, a household that uses more than one device at a time will experience lags and freezes because of the limited bandwidth. Only now, instead of playing a few video games or reading a blog post, we’re managing our education, our workloads, our very lives online.
These days, and especially during a pandemic year when more people stay home, we only use around 50-80% of our maximum bandwidth. Factors like network congestion or potential outages can bring down our speed, making necessary everyday tasks like visiting a learning platform or joining a Zoom call impossibly frustrating.
This map from the World Population Review outlines the average internet speeds in 2020 across the country, based on location. To explain what these numbers mean practically, here is a simple task-based reference:
It’s worth noting that metropolitan areas significantly stagger the averages because the internet is unequally distributed making it hard, and in some places impossible, for those who live in rural areas to have access to basic internet services. The Atlantic published a piece asserting that students and teachers across the country are still facing connectivity issues from unequal internet access. Businesses, which typically operate in metropolitan areas, may be prepared for the increase in usage, but that’s not the case for the rest of us.
In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) changed the federal broadband regulations to 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads to reflect consumer behavior changes. The government meant this change to meet the demands of new technological advancements that had embedded themselves in our way of life. Innovation in the last five years alone makes this minimal increase in speed almost obsolete. Upload speed, for example, allows us to connect to video calls and share files through email, which means that people in rural or underserved areas where the minimum speed is 3 Mbps are unable to make two video calls simultaneously. So, a child who is adjusting to the newness of online learning could fall behind in their classwork, or a parent trying to support their household could miss out on work and income as they both wait for the internet to load.
In tandem with the low bar that our government has placed on internet speed is the unchecked power given to providers who can pick and choose where they want to provide coverage beyond the FCC minimum. They govern the level of coverage each geographic region will have, and control how they price their services, often monopolizing the market and leaving consumers choiceless. Historically, internet companies have been able to cater to areas that provide them with customers who are financially able to afford higher levels of service and upgrades. This dances on the line of what is called digital redlining. The FCC has historically relied on internet providers to decide connectivity across the country. So one community could have access to top speed internet while its neighboring community is only offered spotty, inconsistent connections with no ability to upgrade. Everything from our groceries to our medical access has become vital online services that dictate health, housing, education, and safety outcomes.
This year, we debated and discussed matters of equality and fairness as a society. In the last few years, the topic of access has risen to the surface more and more, forcing us to reimagine old systems and disrupt out of date thinking. Internet access should be a part of this discussion.
Fiber-optic internet is about ten times the speed of cable internet and is becoming increasingly popular as the standard in other countries. It’s the fastest home internet option by far, but its availability is still disturbingly scattered. Despite the US having the highest number of broadband users out of any developed country globally, only 32% of US residents have access to fiber optics coverage, ranking us as one of the lowest developed countries in fiber adoption.
As technology continues to advance, so should the regulations to ensure everyone has equal access. Article 25 of the United Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) from the United Nations references very clearly a fundamental human right:
“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”
This list is sorely missing the addition of adequate technology and access to the infrastructure required to obtain these things. When stay-at-home orders limit access to food, clothing, and medical care, it suddenly impacts life on a dangerous level. If the internet were considered a public utility - like clean water and electricity - then providers would be expected to perform as such and give everyone equal access regardless of location or financial ability.
There are rumblings of change on the horizon, however. The FCC recently approved Amazon’s request for the satellite internet system they are creating to bridge the digital divide. There is also a rise of broadband advocates, like the Center for Rural Strategies, who aim to “create better broadband access for rural America and other marginalized communities.”
Can you imagine how much safer and healthier our society would be if everyone had reasonable internet access? As painful as this year has been, it has given us a real insight into where we stand within the digital divide. Awareness, as we’ve seen historically, is the first step to change.
Gone are the days of casual internet use where we are willing to suffer delays to download music on Limewire or connect to a chatroom for our entertainment. Internet access is now the gatekeeper standing between us and access to education, medical care, vital information, local resources, and employment. As we enter a new phase in society, we must rise to the challenge of creating a world where equal access to the internet is both demanded and protected.