Getting Georgia Online: The Importance of Broadband Expansion
Broadband has become an essential infrastructure for Americans, which means accessibility and affordability is a critical issue facing politicians. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) defines broadband internet as a minimum of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download speed, the time it takes to receive data such as loading a web page, and 3 Mbps upload speed, the speed at which data is sent from a small digital device to a larger server such as when backing up data to the cloud. In its simplest definition, broadband is a high-speed Internet connection that is always on.
The applications of broadband are so far-reaching and can indirectly impact health and life outcomes. Despite the importance of universal access to broadband, millions of households do not have access to high-speed wireless connections. These gaps exist in both rural and urban areas, in every state, and across all demographics. Low income and elderly populations, people of color and those who live in rural and tribal areas are disproportionately likely to lack broadband access.
When schools switched to distance learning in March 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the gap between students with and without high-speed internet became more apparent, amounting to what is called the “homework gap.” Although a larger share of rural households lacks broadband access, three times as many households in urban areas are without broadband. Even though broadband network infrastructure is present in these areas, many are unable to afford internet services, highlighting the importance of affordability and fair pricing for broadband service. Below are figures from the FCC’s broadband deployment map which relies on self-reported data from Internet service providers and considers a Census block “covered” if as few as one or two residences in the block are served. The darker the color of blue indicated the increase in the number of fixed residential broadband providers.
The map of the state of Georgia (rightmost) indicates that all counties in Georgia have at least two fixed residential broadband providers. The map of Athens-Clarke County (middle) shows that a majority of Athens-Clarke County has 4 or more residential providers. However, the map of Congressional District 10 (leftmost), the Congressional District that covers Athens-Clarke County represented by Rep. Jody Hice, shows that most census blocks or counties in rural areas only have 2-3 residential broadband providers.
If broadband is an essential infrastructure, then regulations and public policy should reflect that, and American communities should have equitable access to broadband. As we move to the November 2022 elections, translating campaign promises into concrete solutions is crucial to closing the gaps. Increasing access and usage of broadband infrastructure leads to higher property values, job and population growth, higher rates of business formation and lower unemployment rates as a result of the digital skills, online education and job search opportunities that come alongside broadband expansion.
As of February 2022, $408 million of COVID-19 relief money was allocated to fund expansion projects in 70 counties across Georgia where residents have little to few options for internet service. The funding will target areas where locations are so spread out that it is unprofitable for internet companies to provide connections. With this influx of spending, internet companies must provide affordable pricing options in tandem, and public, elected officials should make equitable pricing a priority. The public sector has an opportunity to influence affordability through direct subsidy programs or making receiving grant funding conditional on affordable pricing policies. With broadband being a necessity for business, health, and education, Georgia public officials should make broadband access and affordability a priority in their legislative agenda.