We Need a National Investment in Broadband Internet. $100 Billion Is a Good Start.

Imagine if we could put every area of America on an even playing field when it comes to high-speed internet.

a man and a woman looking at the camera: Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

© Provided by Slate
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

In the months after World War I, Dwight Eisenhower—who had been stuck stateside during the conflict—accepted a relatively modest assignment: He was tasked with overseeing the first transcontinental military convoy and reporting to his superiors the state of America’s roads, bridges, and byways. The trip, consisting of 79 Army vehicles and 297 personnel, crossed 3,200 miles. The experience was an eye-opener for the young officer.


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The convoy was repeatedly slowed by roads in terrible condition. Many were unpaved. Bridges were old and often too low for trucks. Eisenhower could see clearly how road quality directly affected the mobility of a moving army—or any vehicle. The lessons never left him, and his fascination with highways, logistics, and national defense led him, as president four decades later, to champion and launch the interstate highway system.

Today’s internet is as critical—if not more so—to our nation’s economy and security as roads and highways were in Eisenhower’s time. And our internet infrastructure is similarly ragged and uneven. Even now, it’s choked by slow speeds or no access at all in significant portions of the country. While a great number of Americans are relying on high-speed broadband to conduct meetings, see their doctors, study with their teachers, and stream the latest shows, roughly 21 million Americans in 2019 had no fixed broadband service and therefore are stuck on the backroads with no on-ramp to the highway nearby. For many of them, it’s a simple fact of geography: They live in rural areas where broadband providers say it’s too expensive to serve. Or, alternatively and commonly, they can’t afford it.

This is unacceptable for a prosperous and productive nation—and it doesn’t need to be the case. In the coming months, the White House, Congress, our nation’s governors, philanthropists, and others in the private sector should take the lead in addressing this digital divide in a coordinated way. What America needs is a digital infrastructure plan suited to our economy, akin to Eisenhower’s 1956 Interstate Highway Act: a sweeping plan to create and support technology-neutral broadband access such as mobile and fixed wireless, cable, fiber, and satellite, with a special focus on rural and underserved communities.

How much of an investment do we need? A Democratic proposal earlier this year committed $100 billion to an investment in digital infrastructure but was part of a COVID-related bill that did not make it into law. We need a bipartisan-supported law dedicated to digital infrastructure. I would argue that $100 billion is a good one-time investment to start.

Now, I admit that when I hear government spending called an investment, I get skeptical. Most government spending, even those dollars termed an “investment,” is money put out the door on an annual basis. There is no expected clear-cut return, which is what an investment has to do. In this case, spending on digital infrastructure promises a real return, as it would ensure that America’s technological leadership produces widely shared gains and a larger overall taxable economic base.

Consider what the Interstate Highway Act, which cost $258 billion in today’s dollars, did to finally link our national economy closer together, allowing companies to quickly ship goods to one another and workers to travel farther away from home for their jobs.

The money Congress committed in 1956 amounted to 5 percent of the nation’s economic output at the time—and yielded massive economic benefits for decades. That was an investment. A similar investment in digital infrastructure, at even $100 billion, would represent a mere fraction of our $20 trillion economy. But the impact could be just as big as the interstate highway system was to America in the 1950s. How can we claim to be a nation of opportunity for all if we effectively lock our rural and low-income communities out of the digital economy?

It may seem self-evident that the internet is a crucial part of school, health care, and work. But it’s worth stepping back to go through the myriad roles it plays, and how disconnection can disenfranchise.

Let’s start with schools. COVID-19 has forced schools to drop their opposition to online and self-paced digital learning. Done right, we see now that virtual classrooms can be an effective approach to teaching our kids whether in the pandemic or as an enhancement to classroom education.

But it has to work for everyone. Right now, roughly 9 million K–12 students and 400,000 public school teachers lack reliable internet access required for learning. We are creating a system of digital haves and have-nots in the classroom. Students whose parents have broadband and the time to give are experiencing an education that is more experiential and creative than they might get in a standard classroom-based day. But students without those features are swimming alone, and against the tide.

In the first months of the pandemic, many schools effectively shut down learning for the school year in March. But even now, with a full summer to plan ahead, public school systems are struggling with virtual teaching. Parents are frustrated, and children aren’t growing intellectually or emotionally. The results will be felt for years with low-income and rural students suffering the most.

The fact is: School administrators still view virtual schooling as subpar. But virtual and distance learning works when it is designed effectively for learners at varying levels. For older students who prefer self-paced lessons, virtual learning can produce significant gains. Moreover, it allows teachers to augment lessons with online resources that would otherwise be difficult to integrate. And it is especially good at providing directed support for students who are struggling in certain subjects, like math.

All of this opportunity depends on high-speed internet connections. A relatively slow broadband connection—say, DSL—might not sustain the video connectivity necessary for a teacher and student to talk and see one another over a Zoom call. If you’ve ever had a video call with someone on a mobile phone, you know the difference. In a virtual classroom, learning isn’t just dependent on intelligence and teaching skill. It also depends on the internet connection—ideally, at home, not in the parking lot of a McDonald’s or Taco Bell.

The challenge is the same in other areas of digital opportunity. Consider health care access: Telehealth is forecasted to grow sevenfold. Americans are getting care and second opinions and guidance from doctors over the internet, especially because COVID-19 has restricted their access to their doctors’ offices. Some of the most important leaps in health care involve wearables—wireless technology that monitors key health indicators.

Some of the most transformative tools in virtual health technology will in particular help those least able to access them due to the digital divide. Wireless monitoring of heart health, blood sugar levels, and other vital health indicators can transform the care of chronic conditions often found among low-income Americans such as diabetes and heart disease. Yet community health centers—often the places where low-income Americans get their care—are poorly prepared for this trend. More than half of centers did not have any telehealth usage as of 2018. And in an age when rural and small hospitals are increasingly at risk of closure, telehealth may need to meet rising demand for basic clinical evaluations and patient monitoring.

This is a massive opportunity to improve the health care of low-income Americans. Diabetes, which requires ongoing management and clinical care, is rising, but especially among low-income and rural populations. Telemedicine can markedly improve health outcomes for diabetes patients, controlling glycemic index levels, reducing blood pressure, controlling cholesterol, and improving quality of life measurements. Similar results were found among patients struggling with hypertension; not only did patients using telemedicine monitor their blood pressure more often, but their blood pressure declined meaningfully. What other areas of medicine and patient outcomes would improve if we were able to make the promise of telehealth possible for everyone? Imagine the improved quality of life, longer life spans, caring for loved ones at home rather than more costly institutional settings, reduced spending on end-of-life care, and benefits to society from healthier and more energetic citizens? These are the kinds of gains we can all expect—and we all deserve.

But with low-speed internet, such tools of clinical care are effectively closed off. As with education, health care institutions have adjusted rapidly to the realities of the pandemic. Resistance to online consultations has dropped; patients are increasingly comfortable being evaluated by doctors over a screen. But again, if people don’t have high-speed internet, they can’t take advantage of those options.

The irony of the situation is that for years, policymakers have struggled to improve health care access. Today, with broadband, we finally have a tool to improve health care access. We just have to activate it for everyone.

And then there’s the working world. Today, working often means starting the day by accessing high-speed internet. Job interviews are being done in online chats, as are skills training and mentoring sessions. This is all good—if you have high-speed internet. If you don’t, you are locked out of the kinds of fast-growing, knowledge-based work that is increasingly at the heart of our digital economy.

It goes without saying that the digital divide’s geographic reality has meant that America’s technology-driven economy is also geographically limited. While coastal and urban areas have prospered before COVID-19 from an intensity of college-educated young adults, high-speed connections, and highly innovative startups, rural America has been left behind. This bifurcation has concentrated talent and wealth into a tighter band of America’s landscape. This is unhealthy for America, and it is bad for both cities and rural areas. The urban job-creating hot spots are expensive and overcrowded; housing costs are often beyond reach. Meanwhile, rural areas are starving for talent and growing companies. The professionals who would love to make a future in towns where they were raised or who prefer a simpler way of life simply can’t give up what they have in the cities to do what they want.

Imagine if we could put every area of America on an even playing field when it comes to high-speed internet. It would be a future where you don’t have to choose between a high-potential, creative job and living in a part of the country where you can still see the stars at night. Young families would be able to live in rural areas and stay there, rather than chase opportunities in the cities. Those who have to take care of aging parents would be able to have that option while still maintaining good, well-paying jobs in small towns. People from low-income households in urban areas wouldn’t have to go to local coffee shops to connect to a video job interview; they could pursue their economic dreams and professional ambitions the way everyone else does—in a quiet place, where they can think and where they can be heard. And they wouldn’t be priced out of their own neighborhoods, either.

Evening out access to high-speed internet would provide immediate benefits to some, but everyone would rise up as we gain access to the full spectrum of talents in our population. People who currently have limited job opportunities would earn more; people who can’t afford to buy a home would be able to own one; people whose skills and interests drive them from the places they want to live would be able to stay and make their contributions felt in their hometowns. Making this possible isn’t a giveaway or a welfare program. It’s in keeping with the vision of our founders and, most importantly, the wishes of our people.

I’ve often said that America is still a developing nation in many ways. We are younger than most industrialized countries. We have a long way to go to tap into the potential of many of our citizens due to underperforming schools. We have large immigrant communities that aspire to a better life. And our rural communities and tribal lands remain a vast and untapped resource of creative and hardworking people. There are major pockets of America that have proved their economic value and potential, but have been left largely fallow for decades. We have room to run! But right now, our lives move at the speed of our internet connection.

What’s more, by investing in digital infrastructure, we can expect exponentially faster speeds. We are eagerly looking forward to new forms of digital transmission, namely 5G mobile technology, which promises exponentially more of a leap from our current broadband experience as 4G was to its predecessors. 5G technology has the potential to stimulate economic growth globally—and in the U.S., it could mean an additional $786 billion in annual economic output by 2035. We should make sure all Americans participate in that fresh prosperity.

So how to make this happen? A dedicated act of Congress, focused on expanding access to our digital economy, would have three core elements: investment, public-private partnerships, and jobs.

First, the federal government will have to put funds—like the Democrats’ proposed $100 billion—to work to support broadband access for rural and underserved communities. A joint federal-state initiative could create a grant program that would fund privately constructed broadband service in communities where 90 percent or more of the population lacks high-speed internet, building on the Federal Communications Commission’s Universal Service programs. States could focus on linking schools, libraries, hospitals, and other public institutions to high-speed internet, while the federal government could set up a competitive bidding process through the Rural Utilities Service for communitywide networks. Foundations, philanthropies, and corporate charitable arms could leverage such public investments with targeted programs to improve training on technology usage, make accessible more laptops, tablets, and other devices, and most importantly, drive systematic changes in the way technology and virtual learning is deployed in our school systems. We should aim to increase both access and affordability so that when networks are fully built out, everyone can use them.

Second would be public-private partnerships to promote long-term investment by private-sector companies in network upgrades in rural and underserved communities. Right now, a high-speed internet is available where it makes the most economic sense—where the density of the population makes it likely to find the most customers. But that’s a market failure we can correct. Federal loan guarantees and lines of credit could reduce risk to companies, giving a kick to some projects that are stuck in neutral. In addition, Congress must commit to continuing the work of the Trump administration’s efforts to provide additional spectrum and regulatory reform in the construction and siting of broadband infrastructure.

Finally, a good Digital Infrastructure Act would create strong incentives for telecommunications companies to support workforce training, especially in rural and underserved communities, to make sure we have the workers with the necessary skills to build and maintain our national digital highways. This work is sorely overlooked but is essential to meet the demand we expect to see in coming years. For too long, the promise of our digital economy has been realized only in investment gains and consumer ease. These are good, but we should also make sure people are ready to do the work to build new networks and keep our digital economy stable, secure, and running.

The past few months have been an education for us all in the importance of a strong digital network. Like the young Eisenhower, we’ve seen how critical infrastructure is to our lives. It is vital that we make sure that all Americans, regardless of their income or ZIP code, can ride on that information superhighway.

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