This editorial originally appeared in The Washington Post.
It’s easy to say all Americans should be able to use the internet in the 21st century, which is probably why several leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination have done just that. It’s much harder to say how to get there.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., released a detailed plan this week on getting the country connected, and she is far from alone in her ambition: former vice president Joe Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., all want the same thing, though perhaps on different terms. They’re right. The internet today is a necessity, and America’s smaller towns and communities are in trouble if their people can’t get online. But more than one-quarter of the rural population and almost one-third of those on tribal land can’t access minimum-speed broadband.
Almost everyone, even on both sides of the aisle in Congress, seems able to agree on the need to fix the maps first. Even that one-quarter number may dramatically underestimate how many Americans are stuck offline. That’s because the Federal Communications Commission relies on coverage reports from industry, and carriers have incentive to exaggerate their reach. The system also marks areas as large as hundreds of square miles as serviced, even when only a single household has access, and companies are instructed to indicate where they could easily offer broadband, rather than where consumers actually use it. All that needs to change.
Better maps will reveal the scope and location of the problem. The next question is what type of technology can best solve it. Warren’s plan focuses on running fiber throughout the country, which has plenty of allure: Fiber is fast, powerful and reliable. It’s also what researchers call “future-proof” — unlikely to become outdated and even likely to outlast the electronics that run on it today. But fiber is also expensive, which is why others, including Klobuchar, propose supporting a mix of methods, from satellites to unused spectrum, for hooking people up as speedily and cheaply as possible.
Then there’s the who. Large providers have channeled existing grants into offering service at inadequate speeds, partly because those grants allow them to. Warren would prohibit for-profits entirely from receiving the $85 billion in subsidies she hopes to offer for affordable broadband deployment, in favor of subsidizing municipalities and community cooperatives. Shifting the focus to local actors is smart — and state rules that prohibit towns and counties from building their own networks need to go. But the government may get more bang for every buck by upping requirements and accountability for everyone, rather than keeping some out altogether.