Community Broadband Networks Can Help Close the Digital Divide—If We Allow Them To

Blog Post
April 19, 2023

When it comes to broadband adoption, the adage “if you build it, they will come” may not quite come to fruition. Despite unprecedented levels of U.S. investment in broadband infrastructure, high-speed internet plans in the United States are still prohibitively expensive, and millions of Americans continue to be left out of the full benefits of our digital world. The most recently published FCC Broadband Deployment Report indicates that nearly 14.5 million Americans lack an internet connection that meets the Federal Communications Commission’s definition of high-speed broadband service (though the real number may be much higher).

In a post-pandemic era where online school assignments, remote work, telehealth, and digital government services are a norm, communities across the United States have been grappling with the digital divide—and they are tired of waiting for the federal government to fix it. Community broadband networks provide a viable alternative that addresses the issue of internet affordability and brings us closer to bridging the digital divide.

Community broadband networks can provide community members access to fast, reliable, and affordable broadband internet service—including in rural and Tribal areas, which are often underserved or even unserved by other ISPs. These networks can also incentivize incumbent ISPs to provide faster, more reliable, and more affordable internet service. Nonetheless, 17 states currently have laws hindering the establishment of these networks in one way or another, with another four states instituting roadblocks to make operating these networks harder.

As it turns out, incumbent ISPs often promote these restrictions and roadblocks as necessary for the sake of a “level playing field,” when they are really aiming to minimize the threat that community broadband networks pose to their anticompetitive status quo. So long as only a few companies dominate the broadband market, consumers are stuck with the one or two providers that serve their neighborhood or building, enabling these companies to charge exorbitant prices and engage in other anti-consumer practices, such as charging early termination fees, pushing lock-in contracts, and setting punitive data caps. Community broadband networks can empower consumers to choose more affordable services without being subjected to corporate oligopoly.

It is high time for Congress to enable communities to take meaningful steps toward closing the digital divide—and that is where the Community Broadband Act comes in. Introduced this week by U.S. Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-CA) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), the legislation would “improve internet and broadband access across the country by removing roadblocks prohibiting local communities from building their own broadband networks.”

States should not be creating roadblocks that prevent communities from harnessing the social and economic benefits of internet connection—in fact, they should be empowering their communities to use all available tools to boost competition in the otherwise highly consolidated marketplace of ISPs. Congress should pass the Community Broadband Act and bring the United States that much closer to closing the digital divide.

Related Topics
Antitrust Community Networks Affordability Internet Access & Adoption