By Mark Buell
May 20, 2021 at 5:00 am ET
It’s an obvious fact: The COVID-19 pandemic hit the American economy hard. But as we look toward economic recovery by investing in our infrastructure, we are faced with an opportunity to build a sustainable and strong economy for future generations — one that ensures every American has access to quality and affordable internet service.
COVID-19 has reshaped the nature of how and where Americans work and learn. According to our Public Pulse Survey, nearly 75 percent respondents in the United States said internet access is more critical than ever to their daily lives, while nearly 55 percent wouldn’t be able to do their jobs without the internet and 56 percent said their children wouldn’t be able to continue their education if there wasn’t home internet access.
In addition to empowering individual Americans, expanded broadband access is inextricably tied to broader job creation, innovation and educational opportunity – all critical components of better positioning America for success in the highly-competitive 21st century.
However, the pandemic also shined a glaring light on the unacceptable digital divide that persists in the United States. This lack of access tracks with the familiar social and economic fault lines of the nation: The poorly connected live, work and learn in every corner of America — in priced-out inner-city communities, historically underserved rural areas and overlooked Native American reservations and Native Hawaiian communities. The United States must prioritize closing the digital divide as part of its post-pandemic economic recovery.
I’m encouraged to see that broadband expansion is supported by elected officials of all political stripes. Both President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan and the GOP’s infrastructure roadmap recognize the crucial role universal broadband access must play in building this modern and equitable infrastructure for America. Broadband can be the unifying force that will support the country’s economic recovery.
However, it will take more than money to ensure every American has access to quality and affordable broadband. It’s time to rethink how we approach projects to connect people to the internet. In the past, governments have supported projects that see as many people get connected for as little money as possible. That worked very well for large urban centers and densely populated areas, but it hasn’t worked for rural America and many marginalized communities.
If we are going to seize this opportunity to build a stronger, more resilient post-COVID economy, we need to support alternative connectivity solutions like municipal and community networks. States will need to remove outdated and discriminatory legislation that makes it difficult or impossible for municipalities to provide broadband service to their citizens. To maximize efficiencies, fiber deployment will have to be incorporated when other infrastructure investments such as roads or electricity grids are carried out.
The Federal Communications Commission will need to finally fix its broadband mapping system so we can ensure investments in internet infrastructure are made in the areas that need it most.
Most importantly, diverse solutions for diverse communities will need to be tapped. Involve community voices in planning stages so policies that support the development of local and regional community networks also address the issues specific to that community. For example, mesh networks to address affordability in cities and spectrum allocations to address infrastructure in rural areas. Investing in community Wi-Fi access points would also allow them to be activated during future crises, when connectivity becomes a literal lifeline.
Our elected officials are facing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the lives of millions of Americans while simultaneously strengthening the United States’ position in the global marketplace for decades to come. Expanding broadband access is a goal that can rally strong bipartisan support as well, given agreement from Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike that it is essential for growing the economy and equalizing opportunities. It’s in all our interest to prioritize any issue that promises this kind of impact and where we can find agreement across the political divide in this fractious period.
The time has come for policymakers to work across the aisle to bring together the best public and private-sector solutions to give underserved communities the means to bring reliable, affordable connectivity. The dream of universal broadband is achievable. The support is there. The tools are available. The need is urgent.
Mark Buell is the regional vice president, North America, at the Internet Society.
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