Like so many essential services, the pandemic has shown that access to fast, reliable and affordable internet is a necessity for our everyday lives. If we did not realize this before the pandemic, there is now no denying that the internet is indispensable to how we learn, work and access critical services.
While we know millions of Americans still lack access to reliable internet — with low-income, Black, Hispanic and Native Americans much more likely to be on the wrong side of the digital divide — the total number remains unknown. The Federal Communications Commission estimates around 15 million, while the White House puts the number at 30 million and still others project that it’s over 40 million.
Now that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has made its way through Congress and been signed into law, we are on the precipice of seeing an unprecedented amount of money spent to end the connectivity gap in the United States. The law commits $42.5 billion to broadband deployment and related projects to improve internet access for low-income, rural and remote communities, with money going directly to states with oversight from the Commerce Department. The need for reliable internet access for all Americans is one of the few issues with bipartisan support, and the recent infrastructure law is a step in the right direction.
This is a good and overdue start, but more solutions must be deployed and supported if we are to solve this persistent challenge of under-connected communities. Specifically, the bipartisan infrastructure law fails to recognize the important role solutions like municipal and community networks can play in building a stronger, more resilient post-COVID economy — particularly in the hardest hit communities, which are disproportionately low-income communities of color.
More must be done to remedy the structural barriers to these simple, community-based solutions. Without changing these policies, municipalities will continue to face challenges in providing local broadband services to their citizens and the historic infrastructure investment will do nothing but replicate our existing connectivity challenges.
Community networks built, managed and used by the people they serve also represent viable and sustainable solutions to address connectivity gaps in underserved regions in rural and urban areas alike. They are often the last mile in the connectivity puzzle, engaging with both the traditional telecommunications providers and local businesses. These kinds of networks are already connecting people all over the country where traditional internet service providers fail to provide service or don’t see enough of a return on investment to offer their services — from rural, isolated areas to neglected neighborhoods in city centers, even in places as seemingly connected as New York City.
The Internet Society has a long history of working with communities worldwide to fund, build and train people with the skills needed to run and maintain community networks. Earlier this year, we partnered with the Truist Foundation to award $1 million in grants to expand internet access to underserved and rural communities in the southeastern United States.
One Truist grantee, the Jesup Cyber Wagon in Tuskegee, Ala., aims to design and deploy local infrastructure to provide affordable internet access within the Tuskegee Housing Authority area. While the initiative is led locally, it is not a solo effort. Successful community networks require collaboration among local government, the private sector and civil society to benefit the local community.
The Jesup Cyber Wagon model is one that can be scaled and replicated across the country. But bringing this connectivity approach to millions of Americans requires states to adapt and review outdated legislation that stands in the way of local and community networks. This work must be done by both federal and local legislators, particularly in those states with policy barriers to this commonsense solution.
If we are going to close the pernicious digital divide — which limits opportunity and potential for so many individuals and communities — we must rethink our approach to how we connect people to the internet. Billions of dollars have already been invested in bridging the digital divide, but many communities are no better off than before that money was spent.
It is time for communities to take the lead. We need both broader investment in infrastructure from the federal government and policies that support locally owned, operated and affiliated broadband networks at the community level.
Mark Buell is regional vice president, Internet Society. Boyd Stephens is regional network operator, I85 Cyber Corridor Initiative.
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