Half of Americans lack fast internet connections

Never has the necessity of the internet been so clear, nor has the cost to those who go without.

By Shira Ovide, April 14, 2020, NYT

With many millions of Americans working or attending virtual school from home during the coronavirus pandemic, the longstanding gap between those who have reliable, affordable internet and those who don’t has never been so clear.

Susan Crawford, a Harvard Law School professor, has said for years that America’s internet system is broken. She advocates government intervention to help finance and oversee online pipelines, as happened previously for essential services like telephone lines and electricity.

Susan’s critics say she’s proposing an unviable government overreach. But it’s clear the status quo isn’t working, so I talked to Susan about her proposed solutions.

How big is the problem, exactly?

No one really knows, Susan says. Microsoft estimates that 157 million Americans — about half the population — aren’t using relatively fast internet connections. The government, using different counting methods, says more than 21 million Americans, mostly in rural areas, don’t have access to fast internet.

Either way, a lot of people are being left behind. In rural and suburban areas, people may have the choice of only a modern version of dial-up internet. In cities where fast internet is widespread, many lower-income people can’t afford it. Americans pay more for worse service than our counterparts in many affluent countries.

How to get fast and affordable internet to everyone:

Susan says the root of the problem is that big companies like AT&T and Comcast both control the internet pipelines and charge us to gain access to them. They don’t have an incentive to build affordable internet everywhere.

What we need, Susan says, is a foundation of internet pipelines treated as a public good that will encourage competition for our internet dollars.

She proposes the federal government give priority to local governments, nonprofits and other organizations with a public purpose to receive subsidies, tax breaks and low-cost loans for building fast and affordable internet connections.

This seems like a government takeover of the internet.

Susan doesn’t want the government to own internet lines. But she says our system doesn’t work, and the government has stepped in before to ensure essential services reach everyone at reasonable prices.

Before the Great Depression, companies divided up the electrical grid from place to place, and mostly only businesses and rich people in cities had access to it. The government started providing loans and other help to municipal and rural power organizations. Electricity became ubiquitous.

“We solved these problems in the past, but we keep forgetting,” Susan said. “We can do better as a country.”

This is the kind of idea that only politicians who love big government will embrace. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s internet policy plan includes elements like what Susan proposes.

Susan says the bill for a government-backed internet expansion would be larger than the $80 billion the Obama administration once estimated. (She believes investors other than the government would be involved.)

The costs are worth it, she says. The issues that we care about — fair access to good education, renewable energy, effective health care and new technologies like driverless cars — all depend on having high-grade internet networks everywhere and for everyone.

While many of us are required to stay home, we will probably run into some sort of tech disaster. (I’m thinking about all the toilet phones out there.) Unfortunately, many gadget stores with repair centers, including Apple and Microsoft retail stores, are closed during the pandemic.

So what to do? Our sister publication Wirecutter has a helpful guide, including tips on finding online support and locating electronics stores that are still open, like Best Buy.

But here’s another nice idea: Try to support your independent repair technicians.

There are probably phone and computer repair specialists in your area who would appreciate your business. Look them up with a quick Yelp or Google search, reach out to them and see if they can help. Ideally, they should be able to help you while keeping a safe distance.