There’s an interesting debate going on right now over a new rule from the Biden administration on how some coronavirus relief money can be used. Specifically, the dispute centers on whether that funding can be used to expand high speed internet.
The need is obvious. If the previous school year’s attempts at virtual classes taught anything, it was that access to high speed, reliable internet connections is anything but even. Residents in the City of Eau Claire could generally gain access to speeds that would comfortably handle the load. You didn’t have to go far outside the city, though, to find places where such stability was all but impossible.
That basic pattern, with good access in urban and suburban areas and much poorer service outside of those spots, was repeated over and over again across the country. It was obvious to any observer that rural America, long used to being ignored, had once again been left behind by the digital revolution.
The administration’s goal to ensure fast, reliable internet service nationwide is laudable. It has included establishment of broadband services as one of the programs for which American Rescue Plan funding may be used.
There’s a catch. The allowance is for delivery of internet with download speeds of “at least 25 megabits per second.” Upload speeds have to hit a minimum of 3 Mbps. Those targets are widely available in cities, but are much rarer in rural America. Cities are, perhaps predictably, raising a stink. They say minimum requirements don’t allow for multiple people in a single household streaming, working, or viewing online entertainment at the same time.
The list of cities that have formally asked the Treasury Department to reconsider spans the country. Milwaukee has done so, as have San Antonio, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
We’re not going to dispute the claim here. Speeds that may technically meet the definition of broadband probably do struggle when multiple people are engaging in high-intensity use on a single connection. That problem is going to be exacerbated by the increasing use of 4K video on Netflix, Disney+ and other streaming platforms.
The argument goes that rural American might “leapfrog” urban areas in terms of internet service. But there’s something in that stance that rubs us the wrong way. It’s the implicit assumption that rural areas should always trail higher-population areas. That, in the rare instances rural areas achieve a higher standard, something must have gone wrong.
What the complainants miss is that their connections struggle under heavy loads. Rural connections may well struggle under any load. That’s the fundamental disparity that the rules as currently written are trying to address. They don’t deny the underlying issues some cities face, but that’s not what they’re designed to take care of. The rules are aimed at rectifying the divide between insufficient connections and an outright absence of connectivity.
Patrick Halley, general counsel for USTelecom, got it right, at least for now: “Rather than reinvesting in locations that already have broadband to make it better,” he said, “[relief funds should go to] places that don’t have any broadband at all.”
We don’t dispute the contention that the definition of broadband shows its age. Neither do we dispute that there are areas of our country that haven’t seen significant investment or upgrades in a decade or more, even as technology has advanced.
There’s another potential complication as well. Internet speeds aren’t always consistent even within communities. It’s entirely likely that people who live in one area can have speeds that differ from people across town. Which speed should be used for the purpose of measuring eligibility? But, again, that’s not the issue we’re addressing today.
The issue we’re addressing is the long-term question of state and national governments’ chronic assumption that rural America should be satisfied with less, that the occasional remembrance with a few policy breadcrumbs should be sufficient, if not engender outright gratitude.
Rural America is a sleeping economic giant. But waking that giant requires essentials. There are few assets as indisputably essential to business today as the internet. Continuing investment in internet infrastructure is and will remain crucial, just as it is for the rest of the nation.
Cities aren’t losing out when rural areas get permission to improve. They’re gaining potential business partners. The need for boosting cities’ internet is real, but using that point to pit cities against rural areas is misguided.