Fun Fact: 2.1 million Americans still use dial-up internet. At least that was the case back in 2015, which seems to be the last time anyone checked. That number might be a little lower now, but probably not by much.
The problem is rural broadband access, which is horrible in this country. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center study, 24 percent of Americans living in rural areas say access to high-speed internet is a major problem.
With 19.3 percent of Americans living in rural areas, that means high-speed internet access is a problem for more than 15 million people.
On the list of shameful ways the United States has fallen significantly behind other countries when it comes to providing for our people, high-speed internet access should at least crack the top five. One recent survey of high-speed internet by country placed the United States at 20th on the list, behind bustling tech hubs like Lithuania and Jersey (which is a country too, apparently).
I’ll pause here so everyone can get their “yeah, but those countries are smaller and have to serve fewer citizens” objections out of the way. That’s obviously true, but it’s also a weak excuse for not improving internet access and infrastructure in this country. That we have more territory and citizens to cover in the warming embrace of blazing fast internet is precisely why the system as it works today needs to change.
In a perfect world, any town, city, state, or municipality that wanted to build their own high-speed internet service would be able to do it. That’s what happened in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and it worked really well. So well, in fact, that the next step in their plan was to build the same system in surrounding areas. That’s when the Comcasts and Verizons of the world stepped in to object, effectively killing those expansion plans.
That Chattanooga was able to build their own internet service in the first place is impressive. In a lot of areas, doing that without offering it up to a major carrier to use is strictly forbidden by law. As a result, rural communities are left hoping one of the major carriers will swoop in and upgrade the infrastructure in their area, even if no profit motive to do so exists. Seeing as how corporations literally have no other motivator besides profit, this makes for an absurdly long wait.
To say the major telecommunications carriers don’t adequately serve rural areas is understating the problem. It’s more like they act as a barrier between rural areas and access to high-speed internet. There is absolutely no evidence that the big four (soon to be three) are willing or able to fix this problem. So, it’s time to try something new.
There have been a few different proposals for building a national internet infrastructure in recent years.
When the Trump administration floated the idea of a national 5G network to be built and administered by the government, it was shouted down as an “authoritarian approach” to internet access.
This is bipartisan stupidity. There’s nothing “authoritarian” about treating internet access like the public utility it should be. The internet is an integral part of American life, right up there with water and electricity. Restricting access to it encourages exactly the kind of economic divide between urban and rural areas that helped Trump get elected.
In fact, I’d argue that, even though they’ve pushed it a couple of times now, the Trump administration doesn’t really want to provide fast, low-cost internet to the entire country. That’s especially true if it means sacrificing corporate profits.
The reason I say that is simple: Trump is a “jobs” president, and at no point during the various debates over nationalized internet has he hit on the fact that improved broadband access would bring jobs to people living in the same areas he promised to bring jobs to during his campaign. Instead, fear-mongering about China spying on us is the only motivation given for wanting to take control of the future of internet infrastructure in America.
Also, the conspiracy theorist in me likes to think the reason most far-right websites look like they were built using Geocities is because they tend to work better on the sub par internet networks rural communities are saddled with. Your message will spread a lot more effectively if the page the dissenting opinion is on takes 25 minutes to load. Under those circumstances, the Trump administration has even less motivation to want to improve things.
But that’s an unsubstantiated hunch I’ll explore further somewhere down the road. For now, let’s talk about the most recent effort to take internet access out of the hands of the likes of Verizon and AT&T.
The gist of the idea is that broadband spectrum would be taken from the Department of Defense and made available at wholesale prices to whoever needs it and can pay for it. The sale of that broadband spectrum would be administered by a third party.
Unfortunately, one of the players making the biggest push for this plan is a company called Rivada, which has ties to Trump supporter Peter Thiel and human embodiment of evil Karl Rove. They want to be the third party administrator that wins that government contract.
It’s a plan that has literally split the Trump team in two. The administration wants things to remain as they are, the 2020 campaign team wants the wholesale plan.
That Rove and Thiel and half of Trump World support a wholesale 5G internet market in no way means it’s a bad idea. In fact, as pointed out in this op-ed Kevin Werbach, a former adviser to Obama on telecommunications, the divide among Trump’s team makes for an opening for progressives to take this debate and run with it. High-speed, low-cost internet for all, with none of the unsavory connections to Karl Rove and Peter Thiel.
It seems like a no-brainer, but so far, we’re seeing none of that from the other side of the aisle. Instead, there’s just more bipartisan support for making sure the government never gets involved in improving internet access in this country.
It’s a stark reminder that, at the end of the day, no matter what side of the political spectrum you reside on, corporate interests will always be more important to elected officials than you are.
For people living in rural areas, the dulcet tones of connecting to dial-up internet should serve as a daily reminder of that unfortunate reality.