Back in the dark ages of 2014, we as a country were having a legitimate debate about the emerging and increasing importance of the internet in our lives. On one side, some argued, because the internet was not called a utility (think electricity, water, sewer), it did not need government regulation. The corporate world would absorb the costs of building the millions of miles of wires, cables, launching the satellites, while assuming responsibility for connecting it directly to our homes. In exchange, our local municipalities ceded monopoly rights to communication companies for up to 15 years at a time, causing pricing to spike and a creating a growing digital divide among middle and low-income families in our locales-but hey, at least we had something approaching connectivity for most people.
The other side loudly argued that the internet should be treated as if it were a utility. The definition: “A utility is an important service such as water, electricity, or gas that is provided for everyone, and that everyone pays for.” Surrounded by the fervor over “net neutrality”, advocates felt that achieving the true potential of equal internet access for all Americans was an inherent right. The effort failed with the change of administrations.
But new questions have emerged since then. Today, in our coronavirus world, we rely on our home connectivity for almost everything-work, school, family, friends. Should employees be expected to work from home if the government closes their workplace? Or just those employees who can afford to pay $100 or more a month for their internet access get paid? Should the student who is told to leave the residence hall, go home to a house or apartment that has no internet access, knowing their broadband was turned off because one or both parents have been laid off? How do they complete their education?
Consider your situation right now (or your neighbors) –could you apply for unemployment without the internet? Could you do your job remotely without the internet? How would your children access online learning? Telemedicine is about the only way to see a doctor today-would you be able to connect with your doctor?
Gigi Sohn, a distinguished fellow at the Institute for Technology, Law and Policy at Georgetown University, and former counselor to the Federal Communications Commission Chair Tom Wheeler, has been an outspoken public advocate for digital equity and widespread broadband adoption. Over the weekend, she reminded us that every crisis has unseen opportunities, and in her work, I see a huge window for higher education to level the playing field:
In January, Sohn testified before House’s Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. She stated broadband access is an “equity” issue, and reminded us the United States pays some of the highest prices in the world for “fast” internet. She added:
“Beyond replacing previously in-person interactions, broadband Internet access has become a vehicle for enormous, and previously unfathomable, opportunity for individuals and businesses alike. Broadband enables artists to sell their crafts on Etsy, students to take online courses from Coursera and Khan Academy, far-flung friends and family to connect on email and social media, rural residents to access high-quality health care, and workers to telework. These tremendous advances change the nature of work, education, and healthcare and enable greater flexibility for connected Americans to choose where they live, how they work, and how they care for their families. Connection changes lives.”
That was less than three months ago. How much more important is high speed internet in your home in today’s new world? Would you be able to work remotely? Would you still receive a paycheck? Would your children be able to attend school virtually? Without high speed internet, would you be able to hang out with your friends and family at all?
In our “new normal” world, one could argue that broadband is no longer a luxury, subject to the cartel-like whims of a single local provider. Instead, higher education should reframe the discussion of whether high speed internet should be treated as a utility. Could we find anyone today who wouldn’t agree the internet is essential to our daily lives?
Higher education should be a leading voice here— the opportunity is flashing like a red light. If, as some have been saying, our future is online, we must be on the forefront of advocating for our students. Logging in to the digital world is critical, no matter what your economic status is at the moment.
“Access” and “affordability” are often used terms to create democratic spaces in higher education. After this pandemic passes, I suspect many colleges will begin to innovate around the difficult lessons we are learning now. Nearly all of that hard-won insight will inevitably point towards more online activity, not less. Higher education needs to take this crisis and turn it into an opportunity to reframe the debate; let’s start with how we share knowledge and who has access to it.
- Ethiopia’s internet shutdowns are disrupting millions of lives – Quartz Africa
- How to check if your service provider is throttling your internet – CNET
- 8 charts on internet use around the world as countries grapple with COVID-19 – Pew Research Center
- How to boost your home internet speeds while you’re stuck at home: Tech Support – Yahoo Money
- Welcome (Back) to the Appointment Internet – New York Magazine
- How to boost your internet speed when everyone is working from home – The Conversation AU
- An Internet Shutdown Is Keeping Coronavirus Information From Millions in Pakistan – Slate
- How to protect your devices on the internet during the coronavirus pandemic – WGEM
- Slow Internet? Paying More For Faster Speeds May Not Be The Answer – Forbes