Feb. 9, 2024
As the pandemic demonstrated, access to the internet is as essential to American life as electricity or running water. When people can’t get online, they face an uphill battle in attaining the basics to participate in society, like access to government benefits, the ability to fill out job applications, access remote learning, or make telehealth appointments that save people money and time. Americans’ need for the internet isn’t up for debate anymore, or, at least it shouldn’t be.
While the majority of the U.S. public values the internet—our laws, policies, and markets haven’t caught up to ensuring and protecting this necessity. Affordability, a primary factor for accessibility, is now in peril. The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), a program that provides participating households with a subsidy that goes toward their internet bills, is set to run out, which means many low-income American households risk being unable to pay their internet bills. Meanwhile, the United States lacks the protections Americans need to navigate online experiences without internet service providers (ISPs) meddling with their internet connections—net neutrality as it’s called.
Over the past few months, New America’s Open Technology Institute (OTI) has pushed for laws and rules that ensure all internet users have access to digital content on an equal basis, center affordability as a key determinant of internet accessibility, and help families afford the internet. At the same time, Wireless Future continued ground-breaking work to advance a National Spectrum Strategy that would fast track opening new bands of spectrum for shared use. Spectrum consists of invisible radio frequencies that wireless signals travel over to enable calls from our mobile devices, air traffic control to function, driverless cars to communicate so as to avoid accidents, and many other uses. Opening new bands for shared use in this way would power next generation Wi-Fi and promote school and community wireless networks. Wireless Future also focused on closing the digital divide for students through the expansion of E-Rate, a program that supports connectivity through schools and libraries.
These types of regulatory and legislative gaps that OTI works to address continue to create inequities in the way we access and/or afford the internet. That’s why, even though most American adults use the internet and the ACP has bipartisan public support as well as bipartisan support from elected officials, our policymaking must still catch up. Much work is still needed to advance policies at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), and Congress that would bridge access and affordability gaps.
In 2024, there shouldn’t be Americans who want to go online but are unable to access or afford it. Our reality doesn’t reflect that sentiment yet. To close the U.S. digital divide, we must tackle connectivity and accessibility once and for all.
Over the next couple of years, billions of dollars will flow to states through the Broadband Equity and Deployment (BEAD) program to build the internet infrastructure that reaches communities without adequate (or any) access. These dollars will help ensure an infrastructure for universal access. But policy efforts can’t end with connection; accessibility and meaningful adoption must follow. In the meantime, we will continue to support the policies and rules that guarantee every American has affordable access to the internet and its benefits.