The Federal Communications Commission Chairman, Ajit Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, has spoken eloquently about the “digital divide” and his commitment to resolving it. His solution? Creating the same market conditions that fueled the divide in the first place. Pai’s approach is a field of dreams that suggests, “If we let them (internet service providers, or ISPs), they will provide it.” But that business model, at least for many of the large incumbents, has left far too many offline.
Let’s start with the numbers themselves. If these business models worked for all U.S. residents, certainly we would see much deeper broadband penetration–that gold star of high-speed service. Yet, according to the Pew Research Center, about a third of U.S. residents don’t get home broadband service. The numbers with home broadband access declined by 3% between 2013 and 2015.
Some point to increases in smartphone usage as an increase in access. But try starting a business, applying for a job, or doing your online homework with nothing but a smartphone. The Pew Research Center, which has been researching broadband “adoption” (having and using broadband), has found that most of those who don’t have it believe they need it.
We know that certain communities just aren’t getting the infrastructure for broadband they need. Peel back the data another layer further and it’s clear that race is a predictor of access. According to Pew, more than half of all black people nationwide lack residential broadband, and that’s down 8% from 2013. Don’t get me wrong, White America isn’t sufficiently served either, but it’s a much lower 28% who lack home broadband.
Pai has suggested that broadband deserts are created by the boogie man of government regulation. But ISPs will invest only when they need to and they likely don’t see the need to right now. The problem we face is getting service to those who are too costly to serve.
A Discriminatory Past
The history of broadband distribution has been characterized by discrimination by business model. In the mid-1990s, for example, when phone companies began investing in video dial tone technology, civil rights groups noted that, in some cities, non-white neighborhoods were being skipped over. U.S. West once defended its electronic redlining in Denver by saying it was simply trying to maximize profits: “. . . we had to start building our network someplace,” the company said at the time. “And it is built in areas where there are customers we believe will use and buy this service. This is a business.” That meant suburban and urban white communities.
Just last spring the National Digital Inclusion Alliance demonstrated that AT&T was engaged in this same practice in Cleveland, Ohio. It found that AT&T “withheld fiber-enhanced broadband improvements from most Cleveland neighborhoods with high poverty rates.”
I helped New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio begin to develop local solutions to this business-model problem. Almost a third (27%) of New York City residents do not have broadband at home, and that number jumps to over a third for those living below the poverty level. We had little competition among providers–a national problem–to bring down prices. We supported the Obama administration efforts to allow subsidies for telephone service providers to support broadband costs, but we knew some of our population would not get quality services or would still find even low-cost broadband too costly.
We then created a plan to provide free wireless broadband to every unit in a number of public housing developments. Our efforts don’t supplant the private sector: Companies can charge for higher-speed connections, and the city is using private providers as contractors. But our plan does mean that no matter how poor, residents in those developments can participate in the educational, economic, and civic life home broadband supports.
Pai’s FCC now has a Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee to propose deregulation, but cities, libraries, and other critical stakeholders are not included in the process. To me, that’s an indication of a commitment to deregulate in the absence of a comprehensive understanding of the needs of communities insufficiently served.
As the world becomes increasingly digital, far too many will be excluded and unable to adapt unless there’s a willingness to support local innovation from both the government and the nonprofit sector. Broadband availability is necessary to the survival of communities, including tribal nations. And it’s crucial to the future of the United States, where half of all citizens born are people of color and where soon the majority of young people 18 years and under will not be white.
Some regulatory reform and updating is probably needed. But as the futurist Ray Kurzweil said, “A successful person isn’t necessarily better than her less successful peers at solving problems; her pattern-recognition facilities have just learned what problems are worth solving.” Pai needs to see that the pattern of exclusion in broadband results from the failure of business models, not merely the presence of regulations.
Maya Wiley is a Henry J. Cohen Professor of Urban Policy & Management at The New School.