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The Case for Making Internet Service as a Public Utility in 2020

The US digital infrastructure is slowly reaching its limits and some believe that it will buckle under increasing demand soon. Like any other commodity used by the masses, it needs to be supplied to meet its demand.

The internet in the US is a messy collection of different elements such as small pipes to homes, broadband service, cheap Wi-Fi routers with limited ranges, big pipes to companies, as well as countless devices requiring repair and security updates. All in all, it is the classic specimen of a multi-point failure scenario.

Everyone is using the internet for one thing or another. We use it for email, audio/video calling, online banking, online learning, cloud-based applications, working remotely, and even checking in with our doctor.

With so many people depending on the internet for the basic needs, it begs the thought that whether or not this infrastructure will maintain its quality against ever-increasing demand. Similarly, considering that the internet is a source for accessing education, employment, and healthcare, it forces us to regard the internet as a commodity for sustaining modern human life.

In this article, we will make a case to make internet service as a public utility and argue why it needs to be provided to people who can’t afford it.

An Overwhelmed Infrastructure

From the onset of 2020, the use of internet has increased by as much as 70%, largely because people cannot leave their homes after the outbreak of Covid-19. The unexpected rise in demand has exposed the cracks in the existing infrastructure.

Users relying on Internet service providers (ISP) for their service are being informed that they can delay in service.  People in various countries across the world are now facing degrading internet quality, which is making video teleconferences unstable and disrupting remote work for many people.

The worse part of it is that people with health conditions can no longer be diagnosed through telemedical sessions properly, due to weak connections for video calls. At the same time, online baking has suffered terribly under the growing demand with the majority of them warning customers about delays. People cannot receive refunds for the things they cancelled and silently cope with poor service quality.

The reports of crumbling digital infrastructure were first heard in 2018. However, with the surge of users, private digital infrastructure is suffering from overburden.

The Hegemony of a Few Selected Providers

Leading broadband companies have spent millions of dollars fighting federal open internet regulations. One example of this was seen as when the issue of net neutrality came into the public light.

Since the digital infrastructure does not have the same overview as other essential utilities, the government gives less attention to those issues. The lack of federal outreach and regulation enables many ISPs to manipulate online traffic.

Adopting the internet as a public utility will force the federal government’s hand to enforce balanced regulations that dismantle the hegemony of selected providers over the digital infrastructure landscape.

The State of Public Digital Infrastructure

If the US public digital infrastructure ever needed wake-up call to address its issues, the current pandemic was one of those. However, one problem with public digital infrastructure has been the lack of large infrastructure investments.  Multiple times, the US digital infrastructure has been reported to be in poor quality with the American Society of Civil Engineer grading it a “D+” for infrastructure readiness.

This raises various concerns for the federal government and shows how badly the digital infrastructure needs federal funding to achieve a world-class broadband network utility. For this, the government may have to direct comprehensive funding to deploy broadband across various parts of the country that lack infrastructure.

Currently, the country runs on a model where handling the infrastructure costs is mostly up to the states themselves, allowing ISPs to price connections at will. The entire project is likely to cost somewhere around $100 billion for ensuring 100MB broadband service everywhere.

Carrying out these initiatives  and ensuring full funding may help the federal government resolve feuds related to geographic and funding eligibility. This makes things less complicated for the population suffering from sub-optimal internet service, sums up to almost 90 million Americans.

Managing Funding Effectively

Since funding such a massive endeavor will be a huge task for the federal government, it’s essential to plan and manage this initiative effectively. However, whatever the method you chose, not a single method would be perfect for funding for the initiative.

The government will need a combination of grants, loans, general budget funding, tax incentives, bonds, middle and last-mile funding, as well as various other specialized funding initiatives.  However, the states still may need to spend more on last-mile funding compared to the backbone or middle infrastructure funding.

What further complicates the problem is the fact that each state has a separate definition for “under-served.”  One state defines demand additional funding because it only has 10 Mbps speed, whereas other may call their state under-served just because a portion of their users have access to just 25 Mbps.

Likewise, some states may report being under-served because they have a limited number of providers in their areas, while others require more funding because they are still using dial-up service there.

This is why the funding of such initiatives has to be managed with great care. Unless funding is directed towards states that require immediate help, millions of people could suffer from a decaying digital infrastructure in the future.

The Current State of Affairs

Currently, millions of Americans lack access to high-speed internet with millions more not being able to use the internet at all. Research by Pew highlighted that as many as 33 million US citizens don’t use the internet even to this day.

On the other hand, the federal government believes that approximately 25 million Americans lack access to broadband speed. However, Microsoft clarifies that these numbers are misleading and that as many as 162.8 million cannot access the internet at broadband speeds.

Even if you take the middle ground and take a mean of both these estimates, the figure easily tolls over 90 million, which is more than 1/4 of the US’s total population. Without dedicated policy-making, the lack of high-speed broadband can affect the lives of a considerable part of the population.

Treating Internet Service as a Public Utility

Considering a service as an essential public utility boils down to how critical an impact it has on the lives of its users. After the Covid-19 outbreak, it has become clear that the internet can give both people and businesses tremendous earning potential and enhance their quality of living.

Having access to fast and reliable internet means that people can continue with their education even when they are immobilized in their homes. All the while having access to remote diagnosis, remote work as well as maintaining social relationships personal and professional relationships.

If the federal government provides $100 billion worth of investment to enhance the national broadband capabilities to 100 Mbps, it can easily create a reliable publicly-owned broadband network. In the end, treating the internet as a public utility can help policymakers to transform the lives of millions of Americans.