The pandemic exposed in the most dramatic ways possible why internet service today is almost as crucial to modern life as gas or electricity. Americans worked from home and relied on their computers more than ever for shopping, school, socializing and generally keeping alive a sense of community. As with so much that changed during the pandemic year, some of these changes will likely be permanent going forward. So it’s fitting that President Joe Biden has prioritized bringing broadband service to underserved Americans as part of his omnibus infrastructure package.
But already complications are arising, including the politically fraught question of who should be first in line for government help to get connected: the relatively small number of Americans who don’t have internet access now because they live in rural areas without any broadband infrastructure; or the far larger number who live in urban settings where internet is already available for the right price, but who can’t afford premium services. The answer ultimately has to be some of both.
Biden originally included $100 billion toward broadband in his infrastructure plan, but has already whittled that down to $65 billion in his efforts to get Republicans on board. Beyond the dollar figures is the still-unclear issue of how that money will be targeted. With the two parties so ideologically polarized today — and with the urban-rural divide such a core issue in that polarization — it would be tempting to assume that Republicans would push for wiring the remote areas that don’t currently have service, while Democrats would push to expand services that already exist in urban areas but are priced out of reach of many residents.
But in this case, those assumptions generally don’t hold. As The New York Times recently reported, Republicans and Democrats alike are displaying a pro-rural bias when it comes to where to aim their broadband efforts. This is in part because of what sounds like the common-sense proposition that creating service where it doesn’t currently exist is a better use of funds than expanding service where it already exists.
The problem with that premise is that getting broadband to unserved rural areas is a lot more expensive than expanding it in urban areas where it already exists. And the latter provides more bang for the buck, since some 13.6 million urban households lack internet service, while just 4.6 million rural households lack it.
Ultimately, the goal should be to bring affordable service to every nook in America, urban and rural, and this is only a first step toward that goal. Until that’s possible, this deeply divided Congress should compromise to ensure that various populations are all getting a piece of whatever broadband pie is available — and don’t leave the cities out with the argument that they’re already served. Bandwidth access you can’t afford isn’t access at all.