In an op-ed in Slate magazine, former Florida governor Jeb Bush argues that it’s time to make a national investment to bring the internet to everyone in America. According to Governor Bush, nearly 21 million Americans had no fixed broadband service in 2019 because they live in rural areas where broadband providers say it’s too expensive to serve. Alternatively, they may not be able to afford it (I would suggest that affordability is an urban issue as well as a rural issue).
During the current pandemic, many Americans are relying on broadband to see their doctors, participate in work-related meetings, study with their teachers and professors, and stream the latest shows. Having a large part of the population unable to access or afford access is unacceptable in a nation that prides its standing as a global leader in technology.
Governor Bush cites the fact that the House of Representatives, controlled by a Democrat majority, included funding of $100 billion for internet infrastructure in one of its pandemic bills that has not been passed by the Senate. He argues that a bipartisan bill should be passed to fund the $100 billion, which, in his opinion, is just a start.
Because of a lack of broadband access, Governor Bush argues that we are creating a system of digital haves and have-nots in the classroom. Students unable to access the best capabilities of online courses are not keeping up with students whose parents have broadband. The results will be felt for years to come as rural and low-income students fall behind their peers with broadband access.
It’s not just K-12 education that falls behind in rural areas lacking broadband, but college access is limited as well. Servicemembers from rural areas who volunteered to serve their country are often challenged to find the time to drive many miles to attend campuses after their enlistment ends. Having broadband access would provide these veterans with many more opportunities to attend college online, subsequently reducing the stress, cost, and travel time for a traditional education.
Telehealth is forecasted to increase sevenfold, according to Governor Bush. Some of the most transformative tools in virtual health technology, such as wireless monitoring of heart health and blood sugar levels, will not be able to help those least able to access them.
More than half of community health centers did not have any telehealth usage in 2018. In a period when rural and small hospitals are increasingly at risk of closure, telehealth could meet a rising demand for clinical evaluations and patient monitoring if those patients had access to broadband. Those tools are closed off to patients with low-speed internet access.
Lastly, access to broadband for rural and low-income citizens would provide more opportunities for them in the working world, according to Governor Bush. Job interviews conducted through online chats would be accessible. Low-income residents in the cities would not have to go to coffee shops to participate in a video interview. People acquiring broadband access would have fewer limitations to jobs.
I think Governor Bush’s proposal has merit. Our nation has many infrastructure funding issues beyond the internet (such as bridges, roads, and water and sewer systems). Acknowledging the tech deficit in rural and low-income urban areas and doing something about it could bring opportunities more quickly to those areas.
I don’t know how costly the Elon Musk satellite internet communications system will be, but it is a system that he touts will expand access to rural communities. I have had high-speed internet access at home and at work. At the same time, my travels often take me to areas where even the cell phone reception is poor. There’s no excuse for that in a country like the U.S. where the borders are fixed and have been established for years.
I hope that Governor Bush’s proposal is carried further with bipartisan support in Congress. Further inaction will only increase the gap between those areas with broadband internet and those areas without it.