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Elizabeth Hartline Green

Broadband Access: An Imperative for the Current and Aspiring Middle Class

These days we hear a lot about America competing in the global economy-the trade deficit, the movement of jobs overseas, the performance of our students compared with those in other countries. A key element about our place in the global economy is the absence of a comprehensive and equitable information infrastructure. In laymen's terms, not enough Americans have access to affordable broadband internet service.

This is not just a tech-geek issue, but a call to expand America's infrastructure. Real broadband expansion is of vital importance to supporting and expanding our middle class, and it is important for advocates of universal broadband to speak about the issue in those terms.

Today's economy is centered on access to information through the internet-almost all jobs now require some computer skills. Those who lack the skills to navigate the world of computers and the internet come into the job market at a severe disadvantage, and are unable to obtain all but the lowest-paying jobs. At a more basic level, lack of internet access leaves citizens unable to easily obtain information on job availability, health care, government services, education, transportation, and other essential services. Additionally, those who are unable to access the internet are barred to an extent from entering the public discourse beyond their own immediate physical community (see the YouTube debates for one example). The fact that all Americans do not have access to the internet means that our information infrastructure is not equitable.

There are two barriers to equitable access to broadband: the price and spatial distribution of broadband. There is a huge gap in internet access: according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 53% of adults living in households with less than $30,000 in annual income regularly access the internet, while 91% of those making over $75,000 are connected. Similarly, a study done in Nebraska by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU [pdf] found that while 80% of urban areas had broadband available, the percentage for rural areas was only 54%.

The problem of inequitable access is not getting better, it's probably getting worse. The growth of broadband penetration in the United States has fallen to 20th out of 30 nations ranked; broadband penetration in the U.S. is 15th, down from 12th six months ago and fourth in 2001. According to the Brennan Center, there is little incentive for private corporations to expand service to rural areas, or lower prices to attract low-income customers. The cost of broadband remains unnecessarily high, held there in place by the monopolization that one broadband company can have in a community. The Small Business Administration [pdf] found rural businesses pay 32.6% more for cable modem service than urban customers. Towns around the country have struggled to build their economies due to the decline in manufacturing over the past few decades; affordable and widespread broadband is one of the components these communities need in order to make a full economic recovery. Without equitable broadband access, towns cannot attract new businesses, and companies already located in far-flung areas in cannot compete without the access to information that is essential in today's business world.

The private sector tends to not distribute benefits equally, and this is certainly true in the case of the internet. The way the broadband market is currently structured [pdf] necessarily means that companies will be allowed to set unnecessarily high rates that prevent many consumers from accessing broadband, and fail to develop the infrastructure needed to include rural consumers in the network. Our broadband system currently burdens middle-class Americans with exorbitant costs in order to access a tool that has become imperative for economic success and it effectively bars those working their way into the middle class from access to internet at all.

The failure by our government to address this will mean nothing less than a failure to protect the middle class and those working to attain a middle class standard or living, as well as a failure to protect the future of our economy.

Promoting public sector involvement is usually met by cries of "socialism!" and "market infringement!" Regardless of the rhetoric, public involvement in providing internet services would promote competition, expand access, promote regional equity and ensure an equitable information infrastructure.

I'll leave you with a quote from Thomas Jefferson:

"I think by far the most important bill in our whole code, is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness. . . . The tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance."

This was originally written for our friends at Open Left. Elana helped a lot with the piece. :)

Elizabeth Hartline Green: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 2:41 PM, Jul 24, 2007 in Middle-class squeeze
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