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Fast, reliable Wi-Fi is a 21st century necessity, not a luxury

Internet access is just as essential as electricity and running water

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Jose Reyes, right, and Aval G., of LightLink Communications, install cable for broadband internet in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020. Brent Messenger writes that in 21st century America, internet access is just as essential as electricity and running water.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

More than 21 million Americans lack a reliable internet connection, according to the Federal Communications Commission. And that might be a low estimate. One watchdog group thinks the real number is closer to 42 million.

These people were already at a disadvantage prior to COVID-19, but now their situation is untenable. Without an internet connection, children can’t attend school virtually. Parents can’t work remotely — or search for new opportunities online if they’ve lost their jobs. Americans living alone can’t video chat with friends and family. 

The Biden administration has pledged to help companies expand their broadband networks. That’s a welcome commitment, but merely laying more fiber won’t fully solve the problem. Even in places where high-speed internet connections are available, many Americans can’t afford them.

In 21st century America, internet access is just as essential as electricity and running water. It’s time to make broadband accessible and affordable to everyone, by treating internet service like an essential utility rather than a luxury good.

Many low-income Americans, especially in rural areas, either have unreliable internet or none at all. According to a recent Wall Street Journal analysis, internet connection speeds are 40% slower in poor parts of the country. Just 65% of households in rural counties subscribe to the internet, compared to 78% nationwide, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

This lack of broadband makes it nearly impossible for Americans to fully participate in our 21st-century economy and society. Freelance writer Alison Stine recently explained that “We don’t have reliable internet where I live, in central Appalachia, so remote work and school isn’t even a possibility in many cases.”

That’s why, for months, many children in West Virginia — where up to 50% of public school students don’t have home internet connections — have traveled long distances to relatives’ houses or school parking lots to access Wi-Fi and attend virtual classes. One honors student told reporters that she’d “do whatever it takes to keep up” with her studies.

When internet connections are unavailable, or simply too expensive, families face agonizing choices — such as whether to pay the rent, the internet bill,or put food on the table. One single mom in Concord, California, justified her decision to skip meals and rent to keep her broadband connection. “I can’t pay my rent, but my boy is doing well” at online learning, thanks to the internet connection. “Education comes first,” she told nonprofit news site CALMatters.

Struggling Americans like these students and single moms are making heroic sacrifices — but they shouldn’t have to. Fast and reliable home internet would be far more affordable if we simply changed how people pay for broadband.

Currently, almost all subscribers pay an expensive flat fee for access — regardless of how much they use. The median price is $66 per month, but in some places, can reach up to nearly $200. 

In return, a user gets effectively unlimited data, allowing them to perform necessary tasks like sending work emails and submitting homework assignments, as well as fun — though not essential — data-intensive activities like streaming Netflix and playing video games. The typical plan allows customers to download at a rate of 100 megabits per second, four times the FCC’s definition of broadband speed. 

Contrast this expensive, flat-fee payment model with the consumption-based payment model for vital utilities like water or electricity.

Charging consumers based on their consumption might sound more annoying, but it actually empowers them to save money. If people want to lower their winter heating bill, they can set the thermostat to 68 degrees instead of 72. If they want to slash their water bill, they can take faster showers or water lawns and gardens less.

If Americans could similarly pay only for the internet they use, they’d be able to save bundles. Sending work emails, checking news sites and submitting job applications uses comparatively little data. Low-income families could have reliable, high-speed connections for just a few bucks a week. Netflix is nice — but it’s not a necessity.

And for Americans at or below the poverty line, the government could directly subsidize broadband access, just as it already helps vulnerable families with their electricity bills. Some such programs are already in place; but given the dire need for expanded broadband access, they need more attention and more funding. 

Private organizations can help, too. Comcast has pledged to create 1,000 “Lift Zones” in underprivileged communities where folks can access free Wi-Fi. T-Mobile promises to provide 10 million poor students with broadband access.

Fast home internet is necessary to work, learn, play,and live in the 21st century. We won’t have a just society until it is accessible — and affordable — to all.

Brent Messenger is vice president of public policy and community engagement at Fiverr.