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Open Internet

In the Middle of COVID-19: Can We All Agree Now That Internet Access is a Necessity?

As government leaders, policymakers, and technology companies continue to navigate the global coronavirus pandemic, CDT is actively monitoring the latest responses and working to ensure they are grounded in civil rights and liberties. Our policy teams aim to help leaders craft solutions that balance the unique needs of the moment, while still respecting and upholding individual human rights. Find more of our work at cdt.org/coronavirus.

This should come as a surprise to no one, but modern life has evolved around internet access to the point that it is no longer a luxury, but an essential. Like electricity and indoor plumbing, we once lived without the internet, but life with each of these things is so much better than life without them that we collectively agree that everyone should have them. In fact, for things like public health, public safety, and economic prosperity, we are better off individually and collectively when everyone has access to these technologies. If there was any remaining doubt as to how essential internet access is, then the current coronavirus pandemic should have eliminated it. Nearly everyone who is still able to do their jobs from home is doing so via the internet. Nearly every school, whether previously capable of switching to distance learning or not, is working at a breakneck pace to ensure students can interact with their teachers and access their study materials online.

So why is there so little regulatory oversight for the companies that provide this vital service? Why leave it in the hands of a few for-profit entities to determine who gets access, and at what price? Why trust firms to refrain from monetizing their ability to treat customers differently, when they have so many strong incentives to do so? Why rely on an unenforceable pledge to assure connectivity during the current COVID-19 crisis? So far, the answers to these questions have been based on the premise that internet access is something nice to have if you can get it (but that is not strictly necessary), and supported by the deregulatory economic theory that if companies aren’t made to comply with rules, they will be better able to innovate and ultimately provide better services to more people. 

Yet the coronavirus pandemic has shown us that internet access is no more a luxury than employment or education. In fact, it is a conduit for both—a conduit on which many rely every day, but which has become for many the primary means of accessing work, school, information, and commerce as we are asked to stay at home, weathering the pandemic. Chances are, if you are reading this, you are not among the tens of millions Americans without access to a broadband internet connection. But the nation suffers because so many lack this critical service that helps kids keep up with their classmates, sick people access their doctors, and enables many to keep working from wherever they are.

It is time to recognize the critical importance of internet access for all Americans. It is time to place the same value on internet access that we place on electric power, potable water, and paved roads. Each is essential to a healthy and productive society, which is why we incur great expense to extend the availability of these necessities across the nation. And why we assure their safety, reliability, and affordability for all Americans through regulations and government oversight.

To be sure, the twin problems of how to provide and regulate affordable internet access to all Americans are difficult and expensive, but not insurmountable. And neither problem will be solved by the market, which is why these should be tackled by the government. We even have an expert agency (the FCC) already directed by Congress to extend “advanced telecommunications capability” to all Americans and statutorily authorized to deal with the regulation of communications services, including broadband.

There are already programs in place to subsidize the build out of broadband networks, and to lower the cost of access for those with lower incomes. However, the total expenditure for these programs still pales in comparison to how much we spend supporting energy, housing, or agriculture. For reference, the $50-60 billion dollars spent on the most recent airline bailout is in the same neighborhood as the estimated cost to connect the rest of America to the internet. All we need to do is change our perspective on the status of internet access—from luxury to essential utility—and commit to providing and regulating broadband for everyone.

As Abraham Lincoln said, our government’s purpose is “to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders—to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all—to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.” And so I say to you, to Congress, and to the FCC: It is time to treat internet access like the essential utility it is – not a luxury available to some, but a necessity for all.