In today’s tech-powered economy, functioning without a reliable, high-speed internet connection, known as broadband, is almost impossible. But the Trump administration and the Republican Congress are waging attacks on nearly everything that keeps broadband affordable and protects those of us who communicate online.
The ability to access the internet has become essential in many areas of life. More and more companies only advertise jobs and accept applications online. College and trade school applications have moved online as well. Information on things ranging from business opportunities to essential government services to life-saving emergency alerts often reaches us via the internet first.
But roughly one third of Americans still don’t have access to a broadband connection at home, and in rural areas, it’s nearly half. Those with annual incomes above $75,000 are twice as likely to have broadband access as those earning below $30,000. Latinos and African Americans lag behind other ethnic groups.
In some places, broadband infrastructure simply doesn’t exist. In rural areas and in communities facing economic challenges, broadband companies may not see any profit in building out their networks.
The federal government has helped expand broadband networks via the Connect America Fund — similar to programs that brought electricity and telephone service to rural America. But new Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai has indicated that he wants to put impossible new conditions on this program in soem casesmaking the build-out requirements so high that companies would stop participating — leaving millions with no broadband access.
Cost poses another challenge. The Obama administration spurred real progress in making broadband affordable to the less fortunate. Last April, the FCC expanded the Lifeline program — which for years has made telephone service affordable to low-income Americans — to include broadband access as well.
This simple reform had the potential to bring broadband to millions who most need it for things like education, job searches and applications. Late last year, the FCC approved nine broadband providers to start participating.
And then, last month, in a stunning move, Pai — who opposed the Lifeline expansion — reversed course and blocked those companies from participating.
Pai has yet to make his long-term plans clear, but things look bleak for poor and working-class Americans missing out on the tech revolution. Pai and his congressional allies also want to gut rules on net neutrality that keep your internet provider from giving preferential treatment to the wealthy and big corporations while leaving ordinary Americans to fend for themselves. And they’re moving to shred privacy protections that let people control what personal data internet provider can collect and how they can re-use or sell this information.
These changes may not get headlines, but they have a huge impact on people’s lives.
Paul Goodman is a member of the FCC’s Consumer Advisory Committee and senior legal counsel at The Greenlining Institute, a public policy research organization.