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The Internet as Infrastructure

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Susan E. Baer
February 7, 2021

According to Christian Sandvig in The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies, the internet has become a foundational new infrastructure across the globe. This, of course, is true in the United States where use of the internet has become essential in education, healthcare, business and daily life. However, barriers to accessing high speed internet still exist, including physical location and financial constraints. The COVID-19 pandemic has shined an even brighter light on the digital divide and its substantial inequities.

A user’s physical location may serve as the first barrier to accessing a high speed internet service provider. The latest Federal Communications Commission (FCC) report on broadband progress, for example, finds that approximately 19 million Americans still lack a provider of fixed broadband service at threshold speeds. Generally, these individuals live in locations with lower population densities.

Despite obstacles, a movement for high speed internet service in rural areas exists and seeks to employ a variety of technologies and financing. The nation’s governors increasingly view broadband as critical infrastructure, and they have prioritized internet access for all residents regardless of where they live.

One alternative that offers promise in rural areas is fixed wireless broadband. The new fifth generation (5G) wireless standard shows improved capacities and faster data transmission speeds. However, 5G is yet to be fully built out and may not serve all rural areas due to issues including high cost and lower profitability for communications carriers to serve these areas as well as additional technical challenges of providing service in rural areas.

Utilizing another approach, a private company is currently building a low orbit satellite grid to provide high speed internet access to most of the earth’s surface. This company is now in user beta testing presently limited to the northern part of the United States and southern Canada. Beta users pay $100 per month and are required to buy a $500 special antenna that is simple to install. Many additional satellites need to be launched for the system to be complete, but initial users report positive results. If the final system reaches the reliability, speed and cost thresholds that users require, the physical location barrier for high speed internet access may begin to close.

As we move closer to ending the physical location barrier to high speed internet access, financial barriers to achieving universal internet access still exist and present great socioeconomic inequities. According to a 2020 U.S. Census Bureau survey, about 7% of households with children rarely or never have internet available for educational purposes. The distribution by income for the responding households shows that the lowest income households are 10 times more likely to have rare or no access to internet than households with an annual income above $100,000.

Given that many students need to engage in online or remote learning at home that requires the use of internet as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, this data becomes even more troublesome. However, as long as financial barriers to accessing high speed internet exist, the digital divide in education will continue in our post-COVID-19 world.

In addition to education, the digital divide also affects the provision of healthcare services. Rural areas in the United Stats have poor access to healthcare, a recognized fact for decades. Telemedicine may serve as one possible solution to help address this issue, because digital platforms may connect underserved rural populations with the healthcare they need. The COVID-19 pandemic has tested this technology, since many individuals have needed to rely on telehealthcare. Of course, challenges with data storage, cybersecurity and patient privacy must be overcome. Even so, internet connectivity in rural areas remains one of telemedicine’s most important challenges.

Doing business during the COVID-19 pandemic also requires that remote employees have high speed internet access in order to perform necessary duties, and many feel remote work will continue to play a significant role in our economy even after the pandemic ends. Forbes Insights recently surveyed 357 professionals from around the world, and survey respondents believe that video communications have permanently changed the way we work. For example, 82% of survey respondents believe that more jobs will become remote in the future. In addition, 74% of survey respondents believe that videoconferencing will become the dominant way to hold business meetings.

As a form of infrastructure, the internet has truly become essential. However, physical location barriers and financial barriers to high speed internet access continue to be challenges for segments of the public and create significant inequities. Policymakers should be greatly concerned with the digital divide for many reasons including that high speed internet has become a necessity for participation in education, healthcare, business and other aspects of daily life.    

Author: Susan E. Baer, Ph.D., is a Contributing Faculty Member in the School of Public Policy and Administration at Walden University where she teaches doctoral students. Email: [email protected]

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