Early worries about whether U.S. internet infrastructure could accommodate an unprecedented surge in usage as COVID-19 restrictions pushed tens of millions of Americans to working and learning from home have, for the most part, proven unfounded.
However, that new pandemic-induced dependence on robust internet connectivity has shone a light on the stark inequities of broadband access and helped spur a new focus on addressing a long-standing question — why isn’t internet service a public utility with the same support, disbursement and regulation afforded to other basic necessities like water, electricity and telephone service?
Last month, the Pew Charitable Trusts reported an estimated 15 million to 16 million elementary and secondary students, especially those from low-income and rural households, do not have adequate internet access or digital devices at home to support online learning. On Thursday, the Utah State Board of Education approved a request to state lawmakers for $5 million in one-time money and $350,000 in ongoing funding to enhance broadband access and “promote equitable access to highly effective teachers.”
While federal COVID-19 relief funding has helped Utah school administrators navigate some of the challenges raised by pandemic-related remote learning, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said much more needs to be done.
“We have to treat broadband as an essential utility, like electricity, in order to bridge the digital divide and resulting knowledge gap for families,” Dickson said.
And the negative consequences of uneven or nonexistent internet access go beyond the realm of education.
A 2018 state survey found just over 9% of Utahns — over 280,000 residents at the time — didn’t have access to internet service at any level, according to the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development.
The Federal Communications Commission says some 21 million Americans are currently without internet service access, but that number, from data self-reported by service providers, has been widely disputed and other independent estimates put the figure significantly higher.
Pew researcher Kathryn de Wit said in a May podcast that high-speed internet service becomes invisible for those who can afford it but for those who cannot, the losses in opportunities and quality of life can be significant.
“Many Americans staying inside under stay-at-home orders and living in well-connected communities don’t consider the time of day they’re getting online, or whether they need to kick someone else off the internet to finish their homework,” de Wit said. “But for communities that have slow connections or no connections, that’s a normal part of life. They can’t access health care remotely. They don’t have the luxury of ordering food and supplies online.
“The vast majority of these unconnected Americans are in rural areas. This problem, however, affects communities of all types and locations, including urban, suburban, rural, and remote communities.”
Harvard University researcher Susan Crawford has been investigating internet access issues for years and taken a close look at how U.S. broadband service has evolved as well as alternative approaches by countries in Europe and Asia that have embraced the development of high-speed internet access as a basic — and critical — public utility.
Crawford says the models that work best leverage public/private partnerships to get internet infrastructure like fiber optic cable running to every household and business, then opening access to those lines via lease with private sector service providers. The systems, she said, bear a lot of resemblance to how domestic electricity and telephone systems were built out by private entities but backed by public financing and oversight.
The failure to embrace high-speed internet access as a utility-like service, she said, has led to U.S. current market conditions where just a handful of companies wield monopolistic control and are “overcharging and under-serving” clients who, in most cases, have few or no options when its comes to providers.
“Internet access in its nature is a monopolistic service as it doesn’t make sense to have more than one wire running to a house or business,” Crawford said. “The way to fix the marketplace is to ensure that government oversees and regulates at the wholesale level ... and be sure underlying infrastructure is constructed with fiber optic lines.”
Crawford said putting an internet service provision itself under government control was not the optimum end goal, but instead creating public fiber optic “roadways” that are made available to multiple private providers.
An analysis of FCC internet service provider data by the nonprofit Institute for Self-Reliance found over 83 million Americans currently have only a single option for internet access and many more have only two providers to choose from.
“Millions of Americans still do not have a real choice when it comes to their internet service,” institute researchers wrote in an August report. “In urban areas, a relative majority can choose between two or more providers — usually the monopoly cable company and the often slower monopoly phone company.
“In rural areas the situation is worse. Residents and businesses are often lucky to have access to high-quality internet service at all.”
Utah state government has a track record of prioritizing and supporting internet infrastructure development and, on a comparative basis, the state outperforms most of the country when it comes to being wired.
Census data from 2018 pegged Utah among the top 5 states in the nation for connectivity but some notable voids persisted, including over half the residents of San Juan County living without any internet access.
Rebecca Dilg, rural community and outreach manager for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, said even amid pandemic conditions the state has continued supporting internet infrastructure build-outs, including applying some funding that came to the state via the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
She said while Utah has a relatively high rate of overall internet access, the levels of available service in some areas still falls short of the 25 megabit per second upload/ 3 megabit per second download rate that, according to the federal government, is the minimum speed for a “broadband” designation. Dilg, like Crawford, also noted that households with multiple family members relying on internet connectivity for remote work and education tasks could easily require much more bandwidth than those minimums established by federal officials.
While Congress has veered away from taking on efforts to rethink, and restructure, internet infrastructure development in the same way other utility systems are supported and regulated, hundreds of municipalities around the country are, according to Crawford, in pursuit of their own open-access solutions.
In Utah, tens of thousand of households in over a dozen cities are served by a privately operated version of the kind of system Crawford and other proponents of open-access internet infrastructure have worked to champion.
Utopia Fiber is a private company that leverages partnership agreements with public entities, typically municipal governments, to build out fiber optic internet infrastructure in its partner communities. When complete, end users have the benefit of choosing from over a dozen different internet service providers that compete on the open-access lines.
XMission, a 27-year-old old Salt Lake-based internet service provider, is among those competitors and company founder/CEO Pete Ashdown said he’s been working for the entirety of that span to expand affordable and equitable internet access.
“Back in the early days, Utopia got a lot of criticism for what it was trying to do at the same time countries like South Korea, Sweden and others were laying in fiber optic lines that would be opened up to providers,” Ashdown said. “Now, you just plug into the wall for service in those countries and here, private markets have had 20 years to figure it out and it just hasn’t happened.
“There’s no reason why we can’t do it here in the U.S., though dominant incumbents will fight it tooth and nail.”
Ashdown said Utopia has addressed and moved well past early issues and now represents one of the few, flourishing open-access internet systems in the U.S.
“Utopia stands as one of the only successful open internet infrastructure operations in the country,” Ashdown said.
Pandemic conditions, Crawford said, have only served to highlight how far behind the curve the U.S. is. The country ranks outside the top 10 globally in terms of average internet service speeds while also featuring some of the highest internet service rates in the world, on top of patchy access.
She noted the time for action is now.
“It’s apparent that we’re in a world of trouble,” Crawford said. “Incremental change is no longer enough, a tsunami of change is required to bring our nation into the 21st century.”
And Crawford said the collective need for world-class and affordable internet service could be a rare tie that binds in a U.S. political climate that’s struggled for shared incentives for policy change.
“We’re a terribly polarized nation, but if there’s one thing we can agree on it’s that we hate our limited and expensive internet,” Crawford said. “If not now, when, is basically the message if we’re looking for bipartisan agreement on addressing these issues.”
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly attributed data on student internet access to Pew Research. The information came from research conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts.