Broadband or Bust: Benefits of Universal Internet Access

Editor’s Note: The Millennial Voices series is written by and for Millennials to foster nonpartisan discussion. Meredith Seiberlich is a sophomore at American University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

It's easy to take the Internet for granted while reading the news on your smartphone or checking a weather app every day. In 2015, sixty percent of people worldwide are still not connected to the Internet, including 50 million Americans.

President Obama has recognized the importance of broadband, and supporters praise the Internet’s critical role in education, community participation and economic growth.

Source: New America Foundation

Source: New America Foundation

As Kosta Grammatis, an entrepreneur working with broadband-focused nonprofits, says, “Give a man a fish, and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and feed him for a lifetime. But give the man the internet, and he can teach himself to fish, and anything else he wants to do.”

Globally, we have seen it used as a discussion platform across nations, religions and beliefs. Expanding citizens’ access to information encourages engagement in advocacy and problem solving within the community.

Source: Ushahidi

Source: Ushahidi

For example, online maps of post-election violence in Kenya eventually led to the development of free and fair elections. In Malawi, people can check their voter registration status online.

Investing in universal broadband has benefits beyond public participation: the economic effects are substantial. Broadband access would increase Internet speeds across the board, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration projected a $21 billion increase in economic output every year.  

Local governments are starting to provide all citizens with Internet access that is functional and affordable, a policy known as "universal broadband access." The city of Chattanooga in Tennessee adopted this policy in 2009, and is a good example of how increased broadband access can reinvigorate the economy.

Chattanooga, Tennessee Source: Creative Commons 2.0

Chattanooga, Tennessee
Source: Creative Commons 2.0

After a long history of unsatisfactory service from Comcast, Chattanooga's publicly owned electricity company, EPB, used a $111 million federal grant to provide one-gigabit-per-second fiber internet service to all residents and businesses. As a result, Chattanoogans have Internet connections that are 50 times faster than the US average, and new businesses are flocking to the city.

However, there are some obstacles to universal broadband access.  Affordability is the biggest global barrier, as most people without Internet live in poverty and cannot afford to pay service providers. In addition, some regions (especially rural areas) haven’t invested in the proper infrastructure to provide web capability.

2012 National Broadband Map Source: Federal Communications Commission

2012 National Broadband Map
Source: Federal Communications Commission

While the Federal Communications Commission does have certain initiatives aimed at universal access, like the National Broadband Plan, these programs are often underfunded and unused. To combat these barriers, government agencies, nonprofits, and service providers should collaborate through public-private partnerships: Working together to take advantage of unused connectivity could help increase broadband access in struggling communities.

On a broader scale, encouraging innovation and self-regulation in the technology industry can generate the necessary support for broadband expansion: Conservatives can get behind the invisible-hand approach, and liberals see value in consumer empowerment and leveling the playing fields.  

As we move further into the 21st century, the indispensability of the Internet will only strengthen. Shrinking the digital divide with universal broadband access supports community education, civic engagement and economic stability. A collaborative effort to expand broadband accessibility will lead to a more educated and engaged society.

Meredith Seiberlich is a sophomore at American University majoring in Political Science with a minor in Sociology. She serves as an ambassador for the School of Public Affairs, the president and program coordinator of Step Up AU, and a mentor for underprivileged DC elementary school students. She is passionate about otters, Lyndon B. Johnson, falafel and recycling.


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