Across the Bronx, where the median household income hovers around $34,000, broadband access to the Internet is a rarity. A 2012 article in the Huffington Post profiled a number of people living and working in the hardscrabble borough, finding themselves on the wrong side of the “digital divide”—“the chasm between those who are connected to technology and those who are not.”
Whether living in poor urban areas or remote rural areas across the country, people generally lack access to high-speed Internet at home because of cost. They—and their children—find themselves disadvantaged when it comes to doing job searches, comparison shopping, or even a night’s homework—each in its own way a vital link to a better way of life. “Being disconnected isn’t just a function of being poor,” reads the article. “These days, it is also a reason some people stay poor.”
You and I may grumble when our Comcast bill goes up by another two dollars, as it seems to do every few months. We may bemoan the lack of genuine choice among broadband providers. In our upper-middle-class neighborhood, we could leave Comcast and switch to Verizon, but the monthly fees are all about the same, hardly making it worth the effort.
Most Americans would be grateful for such a dilemma. Broadband may have begun as an extravagance, valuable to consumers only for downloading movies or music files, but it has become a lifeline.
Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has spoken out about the disparity in access to broadband, and appears to be doing something about it. Last February, the FCC voted to classify broadband service as a public utility, essentially guaranteeing net neutrality, which is the notion that Internet service providers should enable access to all content without favoring or blocking particular sources at the expense of others. For Wheeler, net neutrality is critical to preserving what he has called the Internet’s role as a “core of free expression and democratic principles.” The ruling itself cites the principle that “America needs more broadband, better broadband, and open broadband networks.”
Wheeler seems intent on making this access a reality for many more Americans. He told NPR recently that 95 percent of households with incomes over $150,000 a year have broadband access, but fewer than half of households making under $25,000 do. In the wake of net neutrality, Wheeler has set his sights on extending the federal Lifeline program, which subsidizes basic phone service for the low-income. The chairman is putting his weight behind an effort to overhaul Lifeline and enable recipients to apply its benefits to pay for broadband service.
Since its inception, the FCC has existed to serve the public interest. In the 1930s, it regulated the radio, telephone, and telegraph industries out of technological necessity to maintain order among the airwaves and protect against monopolies. For example, the commission acted as a sort of traffic cop that granted or denied broadcasting licenses. Later, it expanded its reach into programming, reviewing content and sometimes acting as censor. Past actions may have warranted criticism, particularly in the early 2000s, as the FCC stepped up efforts to enforce indecency on the airwaves. But over 80 years, it has not strayed that far from its essential purpose, that is, to act in the public interest.
Following that model, current efforts to bring broadband into reach for more Americans, particularly those with low to modest incomes, must continue to receive federal attention. In a recent editorial, the New York Times criticized Wheeler’s plan for the Lifeline program as “…too modest. A subsidy of $9.25 a month, though helpful, will not go very far,” the editors wrote. Indeed, the FCC itself has estimated “that the average price for a home Internet connection that can download data at more than 15 megabits per second was $59.40 a month in 2013.”
More funding is clearly necessary. But Wheeler and the FCC also need to push for deeper and more meaningful regulatory changes. Certainly, past decisions resulted in unintended consequences that continue to limit the choice of consumers – whether from consolidation of radio or television networks, or Internet service providers. Under the Bush administration, for example, the FCC exempted cable companies from federal regulations that would have forced them to lease their lines to rivals, saying that such requirements would have lessened their incentives to develop and modernize those lines. The result is that most consumers have only one expensive on-ramp to the Internet.
Until policymakers concentrate their attention on putting public interest ahead of commercial concerns, all those folks in the Bronx and elsewhere will continue to be stuck in the slow lane.
By Paula Moore, Graduate Student
Master of Arts in Emerging Media
Loyola University Maryland