Now Is the Time for Nationwide Free Internet
In the past few months, nearly everything that can move online has moved online. But not everyone is lucky enough to have fast and secure internet access at home. Plenty of folks have historically relied on libraries, cafés, and other public spaces for their Wi-Fi access. As communities across the country have mass-migrated online in an attempt to prevent the rapid spread of the coronavirus, the great divider of internet access is suddenly receiving renewed attention.
Internet access is unequal across the United States
Government and social policies in the United States have fostered a deep digital divide when it comes to internet access. Folks in low-income and rural areas are the least likely to have broadband internet subscriptions. In 2015, a study from Information Economics and Policy looked into why people did not subscribe to broadband and found that cost was almost always the issue. The research indicated that providers would have to drop prices by around 15% to increase subscribers by only 10%.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) runs a program called Lifeline that provides subsidized phone and internet services to low-income individuals to try to make up for the access gap. But according to a recent report by The Markup, this program is riddled with problems. The service itself is underused, with only about a quarter of those qualified actually registering with Lifeline. The current FCC commissioner has also worked to cut back the availability of Lifeline services, making at least nine companies ineligible for providing discounted services and limiting discounts available to folks living on tribal lands who often experience particularly bad connectivity.
While internet access alone is not enough to close the divide, it’s a crucial first step.
This kind of digital inequality is concerning enough in normal times. It decreases access to innovative online spaces, free and low-cost online learning, social spaces curated online, and more. Additionally, back in 2013, the Greenlining Institute found that digital inequality deepens racial and…