If the U.S. Doesn't Embrace Universal Broadband, It Will Fall Behind Peers in the West
By David McCourt
In Ireland, we tend to keep a close eye on the goings-on in America. On many occasions, we benefited from the ideas and innovations of our allies in the United States. But right now, it’s time for the U.S. to follow Ireland’s lead by embracing a comprehensive, inclusive, and technologically-forward broadband plan to ensure every American – rich or poor – has access to the internet.
Ireland has done just that through its ambitious National Broadband Plan. Without committing to such a plan, the U.S. will inevitably continue to see growing economic inequality, fail to facilitate the knowledge sharing that can lead to social improvements, and, ultimately, fall behind technologically on the world stage.
With the recent passage of President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the U.S. has a perfect opportunity to achieve universal broadband access in a way that is inclusive and will position the country for prosperity moving forward. Here’s how you can do it.
Leave no one behind
Now that $65 billion has been allocated to broadband expansion through the infrastructure bill, and with potentially more money coming through the ‘chunked up’ pieces of the Build Back Better plan, the U.S. needs to commit to wiring every single American. Europe is already ahead of the U.S. in this area. When the European Commission developed its new broadband policy, it was anchored to a very clear and ambitious goal: provide broadband to everyone by 2025.
If the U.S. doesn’t provide universal access, it will ensure that the Americans who are already struggling to compete in the global economy will fall further behind. Today, about 25% of Americans don’t have access to broadband at home, a group that is disproportionately made up of people of color. These Americans need access to information, job postings, and other resources on the internet that are essential to social mobility. Plus, the pandemic has spurred a new digital marketplace of educational and health resources that lower-income Americans will increasingly need to propel themselves into the middle class and beyond.
From the big picture perspective, this type of commitment has massive potential benefits for the entire U.S. economy. Studies have shown that just a 10% increase in broadband access could result in 875,000 new jobs and $186 billion in economic output. Getting everyone online would mean that the U.S. can fully tap its economic and talent potential for future technological innovations.
Set up an independent provider
In providing universal access, the U.S. needs an independent provider that is capable of building a broadband infrastructure for all Americans in an equitable manner. While it is tempting to ask large retail providers – like Verizon and AT&T – to expand their broadband coverage to include all Americans, these companies are for-profit, walled garden businesses whose primary interest is selling their products. Not only that, these companies have unfortunately failed to do right by the American public for decades. Anyone over the age of 35 will remember just how hard they fought to prevent customers from owning their own cell phone numbers, all in an effort to prevent people from changing carriers.
Create a level playing field to spark competition and innovation
Offering internet access to everyone on the same terms and at the same price is a necessity. Otherwise, rural Americans may be forced to try to compete with only shoddy, slow service, and lower-income Americans simply may not be able to afford the access and speed they need.
A level playing field of consistent service and price isn’t just fair, it helps create more competition. That competition comes with a whole host of benefits, from lower prices to better customer service, more products, higher quality bundles, and new services.
Ensure robust federal oversight
Given the legislative structure of the U.S., any national plan will have to be managed on a state-by-state basis. This has some benefits, as those managing access and networks will be closer to the people they serve. But federal oversight is key. Given that the states are spending federal taxpayers’ money, they’ll need to put in place robust reporting, compliance, and service management standards to ensure that the money is being spent appropriately and that Americans are getting consistently high-quality service.
Future-proof the technology
Technology is changing faster than ever, and it’s showing no signs of slowing. To make the broadband investment worthwhile, America needs to build for tomorrow and push for broadband speeds that are far in excess of what’s required today.
To their immense credit, lawmakers in Ireland pushed National Broadband Ireland to deliver fiber broadband that was 25 times faster than is currently mandated. Doing so ensures that the investment is worthwhile for the long term and doesn’t become antiquated in a matter of years. The U.S. must recognize that, though it may require a larger short-term investment, embracing a more forward-looking approach now can save billions in the long run.
Right now, America has the opportunity to invest in a solution that will advance its global standing for years to come. Done the right way, with the right roadmap, it will improve education, provide jobs, and support small businesses – national issues almost every American politician can get behind.
The cost of not acting now on a universal broadband plan should concern every American and American allies in Europe. Without action, the U.S. will certainly fall behind. A half-effort, with broadband only expanded for some or not paired with the supportive programs Americans will need to actually get online, will simply not cut it on the global stage. The sooner Americans recognize that, the better off we’ll all be.
David McCourt is the Chairman of National Broadband Ireland and the inaugural Economist in Residence at USC’s Annenberg school. He is also the author of the best seller Total Rethink.
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.