America’s digital divide is not a matter of convenience or luxury. Fast, reliable internet service is an essential part of modern living.
Applying for jobs, shopping for groceries and attending medical appointments are everyday tasks now commonly conducted online. The COVID-19 pandemic also has made the internet essential for school work, and streaming movies or TV shows can help combat coronavirus boredom.
These days, efforts to improve internet access for underserved communities are akin to the electrification of the United States early in the 20th century. In 1920, 35 percent of American households had electricity; by 1929, that had increased to 68 percent, with rural communities typically the ones left in the dark.
From 1934 to 1941, the federal government ran the Rural Electrification Administration in an effort to connect the remaining homes. As Encyclopedia.com explains: “Increasingly, this disparity between cities and the countryside was seen as unfair and a threat to the American social fabric.”
Today, the digital divide is unraveling that fabric. In pushing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act this year, President Joe Biden said, “We’ll make sure every single American has access to high-quality affordable high-speed internet.” The bill eventually passed with $65 billion earmarked for boosting broadband access, particularly in underserved areas.
But work remains. The Federal Communications Commission’s maps of internet access are notoriously unreliable; if one household in a census block has broadband available, the entire area is considered served. As The Washington Post explained this month: “In rural areas, one block could cover dozens of square miles, creating an inaccurate picture.”
According to BroadbandNow.com, 97.4 percent of Clark County is covered by broadband service. But several rural and heavily forested counties in the state have coverage of less than 60 percent. The website reports that more than 100,000 Washington residents have no wired internet provider and more than 500,000 have access to one provider, making it impossible for them to switch.
The Legislature this year took some convoluted steps to address the situation. Lawmakers passed competing bills to help provide internet access to underserved regions, and Gov. Jay Inslee compounded the confusion by signing the bills simultaneously. Kim Wyman, secretary of state at the time, had to make a ruling on which bill takes precedence.
Aside from the turbulence, the important thing is that the Washington State Public Works Board this month approved $44.6 million in conditional grants for broadband construction projects in underserved areas. Notably, the board had received requests for more than $90 million covering 29 separate projects.
Board Chair Kathryn Gardow said: “To thrive in today’s society, internet access is a necessity for children, families, elders, and businesses. Affordable high-speed internet spurs economic growth and development, educates our students, facilitates telemedicine in rural communities, and more. The federal and state governments are making significant broadband infrastructure investments to move Washingtonians towards a more connected state and nation.”
Less than a century ago, many American households were without electricity. Changing that facilitated an economic boom that helped lift millions out of poverty and enhanced equity throughout the country. Investment in internet services can have the same impact in the 21st century.