Originally published on Medium.com on July 15, 2021: For the First Time, We Can Future-Proof Technology
Computers, smart phones, and even USB sticks have a “best by” date. But our broadband infrastructure doesn’t have to.
President Biden just announced that the U.S. government is investing $65 Billion into broadband infrastructure. Why? Because tens of millions of Americans lack high-speed internet access at home. And it’s 2021, after a worldwide pandemic continues to prove that merely providing access via community centers, schools, and wifi buses was woefully insufficient.
Common Sense Media reported that:
Historically students caught in the digital divide have had overall GPAs about 0.4 points lower than students with access.9 This academic gap leads to a 4% to 6% lower expected annual income10, amounting to a $22 billion to $33 billion annual GDP loss11 across the K–12 cohort caught in the digital divide.
In short, the digital divide exponentially exasserbates the cycle of poverty and perpetuates long-standing inequities. America’s founders understood the need for an educated populus. Today, that means a digitally connected and digitally literate populus.
According to Common Sense Media’s report, the three root causes of the digital divide are lack of affordability, lack of availability, and lack of adoption. To close the digital divide, we must invest in long-term broadband infrastructure, keep that infrastructure competitive, and subsidize subscription costs as needed.
Lack of Affordability
For millions of public school students, becoming a digital citizen is simply cost prohibitive. So how do we bring down the cost?
Open Access must be a precondition for any federal investment in broadband infrastructure. Open access policies dictate that a broadband network must allow any ISP to access the infrastructure at reasonable, nondiscriminatory prices to offer its services. Typically, the government owns the broadband infrastructure at issue. Some open access policies operate on a two-layer model wherein the government also operates the broadband network and must allow any interested broadband service provider to sell services using the broadband network. Other open access policies operate on a three-layer model wherein a third party replaces the government’s operation of the broadband network and sells wholesale network services to broadband service retailers, who, in turn, sell broadband services to individual consumers. Ultimately, the open market for these broadband networks results in competitive pricing, which is key to making broadband access affordable. And making broadband affordable is key to closing the digital divide.
Lack of Availability
Up to 4 million K-12 students lack access to wired or wireless broadband services. In the short-term, hotspots are likely the answer. But infrastructure requires a long-term view, and the five-to-ten-year-plan should include both future-proof broadband infrastructure to provide the highest possible Internet connection speeds and supply-chain disruption in the form of laptops with data built into the laptops.
First and foremost, any network built using these funds must be fiber. Why? Because fiber is future-proof. Seriously. The Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote an incredible white paper to prove it to you. The take-away is this: “In a lab setting, researchers have been able to achieve data rates upwards of 100 Tb/s over many kilometers in a single, standard fiber” while there are physical limits (likely around 50 Gb/s) to the data rates possible from coaxial cable. 100 Tb/s is equal to 100,000 Gb/s!
We’re nowehere near able to use the 100,000 Gb/s that fiber is capable of delivering, but we will someday need that level of bandwidth. And while the transmitters that make 100,000 Gb/s possible are still very expensive, replacing transmitters in fiber-optic powered infrastructure is actually a pretty low-cost endevor. Even better, fiber-optic cables themselves are typically designed to last decades, so as the cost for more powerful transmitters comes down, we can replace the transmitters, and those same fiber-optic cables will still work. If you’re going to spend $65 Billion, you should most certainly spend it on technology that has the longest possible shelf life. Fiber-optic cables are the technology that has the longest possible shelf life.
Devices with Built-In Hotspots
How are laptops with cellular data not everywhere? Apple has figured out how to jam a SIM card into literally everything else. My mom’s Apple Watch has a SIM card. Steve Jobs felt passionately about bringing computers to students. I know Apple still has an education pricing program, but $100 off is insufficient. Common Sense Media reported that the Dell Inspiron they used for estimating cost for closing the digital divide is a mere $294, and they quote HP’s Google Chromebook 11 G5 at $199.
Would Apple please figure out how to include a SIM card in a basic Macbook laptop, mass produce those, and then mass distribute them? Along with textbooks, public schools should be simply distributing computers with data plans (paid for by the school system). The student does not get to keep the computer forever, obviously. The computer would belong to the school. But by having the data plan built into the computer, the school does not have to worry about the bandwidth options available to the student wherever they sleep at night. And where the student lives in a highly mobile household or is homeless, a data plan gives the student the freedom to use their laptop learn from anywhere.
Remove Adoption Barriers
Whether the issue is a language barrier, wariness around institutions, or something else, let’s band together to empower everyone in our communities with digital citizenship. Through the Emergency Broadband Benefit, the FCC is working really hard to get people online, and I would be remiss not to address it here.
The Emergency Broadband Benefit is really smart to tap into already existing programs for lower income students, like the “free and reduced-price school lunch program” and Federal Pell Grants. They even tried to sweep pretty broadly by saying “hey, if your provider offers an existing low-income or Covid-19 program and you are eligible for that, that eligibility is sufficient for you to get funds from the Emergency Broadband Benefit.” Personally, I think that is very cool of the FCC to cast that wide of a net.
However, in the spirit of “Go Hard or Go Home,” I’d like to loop in some experts and their thoughts on this program. First and foremost, Public Knowledge and Higher Learning Advocates sent a letter February 12, 2021 to Marlene H. Dortch at the Federal Trade Commission, pointing out that there is no simple way for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to “automatically verify that consumers participate in Pell, free/reduced price school meals, or the unemployment insurance system.” The letter goes on to, instead, “urge that the Commission permit applicants to self-certify, under penalty of perjury and with an understanding that benefits wrongfully claimed must be returned.” Self-Certification matters because, without that option, applicants are left having to gather sufficient documentation and find a way to communicate the documentation to their provider. Since most applicants are likely currently without internet access, the verification requirement will likely require those applicants to bring the necessary documentation to their local ISP’s retail store. Hopefully the retail location is accessible.
Public Knowledge, the ACLU, and several other groups joined in a February 16, 2021, letter to Marlene H. Dortch highlighting several recommendations for how to best implement the Emergency Broadband Benefit program. My personal favorite is their solid argument that Social Security numbers (SSN) should not be the only method for identification:
“Many communities implementing their own emergency broadband benefit programs have proven that a SSN is unnecessary to verifying identity, finding that there are over 30 different forms of identification that can be provided to confirm name and address, including driver’s licenses, utility bills, current employment badges and other forms of photo ID. Importantly, internet service providers, like AT&T and Comcast, do not require SSN to apply for low-cost programs.”
Future-Proof Closing the Digital Divide
The Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB)is funded by the $3.2 Billion Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund, established by the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021. The pandemic proved that high-speed Internet access at home is no longer a luxury, but a necessity. As of June 29, 2021, the FCC has enrolled over 3 million households into the EBB. The EBB will conclude when the fund is expended, or six months after the end of the public health emergency! By making some changes to H.R. 1783, “Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act,” we can insure that President Biden’s $65 Billion Broadband Infrastructure is affordable, accessible, and adoptable by all Americans.