Who Remembers Dial-Up? What is Broadband?

If you are old enough to remember dial-up, you can probably still hum the familiar cadence that took more than a minute to connect to the Internet through your phone line. Thankfully, Americans today can connect to the Internet in less than a second and without a theme song. We often refer to Internet services as broadband, but what counts as broadband and why is there still a “digital divide”?

In the late 1990s, high-speed Internet was deployed for the first time. Twenty years later, the Internet seems ubiquitous in our daily lives. Yet, over 21 million Americans do not have broadband. Broadband is defined in law as a high-speed telecommunications capability that enables users to originate and receive high quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications using any technology. For Internet service to be classified as broadband it must provide, in general, a download speed of at least 25 megabits per second (mbps) and an upload speed of 3 mbps. As an example, typical telework capabilities require between 5-25 mbps, email requires one mbps, and streaming high definition video requires between 5-8 mbps. These requirements increase if there are multiple users and devices on one home network.

What is the Digital Divide?

Broadband can be delivered using fiber, cable modem, copper wire, satellite, and even mobile wireless. As of December 2017, the Federal Communications Commission indicated that just over 93% of Americans accessed broadband, with most users connecting through fiber or cable modems. Even if broadband access is available, some choose not to pay for the service due to the monthly cost.

The digital divide refers to the difference between Americans that have access to broadband and those that don’t, as well as between those that use broadband services and those that choose not to subscribe despite available service. The most underserved populations are those in rural areas or low-income communities. The infrastructure supporting the Internet and mobile wireless technology is expensive and takes time to deploy. In addition, wireless signals can be disrupted by hills, forests, grain bins, or simply long distances. This is one of the main reasons 5G will initially be difficult to deploy in lightly populated and rugged regions. As a result of these factors, many broadband providers have chosen not to invest in rural areas; the limited customer base will not allow them to recoup the cost of broadband deployment. In Texas, 68% of the population in rural areas has access to broadband, while 97% of the population in urban areas has broadband access.

Broadband in the Age of COVID

Before this Coronavirus, many Americans viewed broadband as a necessity to entertain themselves and stay connected to friends, work, and other social conveniences. Due to social distancing, broadband access has become a necessity for work, school, healthcare, banking, and grocery shopping and delivery. Without the ability to live remotely, Americans must risk exposure to the Coronavirus to obtain basic necessities and services.

While the pandemic has brought the digital divide into stark view, existing broadband networks have performed well given the significant increase in Internet usage. According to data from Oxford University, broadband speeds in the United States were actually faster during mandatory closures than during normal operations. In Europe under the same circumstances, broadband speeds decreased slightly while Chinese broadband speeds decreased by 50 percent. America’s success is largely due to the fact that many providers increased data limits and speeds voluntarily for their customers to accommodate the increased demand. In addition, over 800 entities signed the Keep Americans Connected Pledge championed by Chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, to keep Americans connected despite an inability to pay.

The pandemic performance by America’s broadband providers confirms their capability and capacity to adequately serve Americans, especially in times of crisis. To ensure that all Americans receive this benefit, and arguably necessity, we must continue supporting efforts to connect every household.

Future of Broadband

The FCC and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS) support rural broadband deployment through a number of grant and loan programs, subsidies, and construction incentives. The FCC’s 2010 National Broadband Plan determined that broadband is a basic infrastructure necessary for economic growth and a better quality of life. And yet, development and deployment of broadband networks and services is handled by private companies, albeit operating according to government telecommunications regulations. Part of the difficulty is determining the accuracy of broadband deployment. The FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) are engaged in updating the national broadband map to ensure each household is counted when determining broadband accessibility, rather than each census block.

While it is unlikely the United States will ever reach 100% adoption of broadband services, Americans should have the opportunity to use a service deemed a basic infrastructure by the FCC. Over the past several years, the rate of broadband deployment has increased nationwide but rural areas still lag behind. While the FCC and private companies have afforded greater flexibility in broadband services throughout the pandemic, we must find a market-balanced approach to continue connecting Americans long after we defeat this virus. 

Determining the best approach to broadband deployment hinges on the traditional questions of general governance. How much should the government interfere in the private market for the benefit, or detriment, of the American people? To date, federal government support to private companies as well as public entities accessing broadband has worked to bridge the digital divide. The Coronavirus pandemic has exposed the need for broadband access, and there is no telling how long telecommunications companies’ good will is going to last. Consumers can also aid deployment by indicating a desire for service and helping to ensure that broadband access maps are accurate by submitting information to the NTIA and FCC. Congress must also strike the right balance to incentivize broadband deployment without significantly disrupting normal market forces. Together, we can ensure every American has the opportunity to access broadband should they so choose.