On last Sunday’s Meet the Press, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) found himself in a familiar position—namely, defending his $1 trillion economic plan. Sanders’ program, known in the Senate as the Rebuild America Act, consists of two major parts: A system of Medicare for all and investments in fixing our “crumbling infrastructure” that Sanders believes will create “up to 13 million jobs.”
Considering that one of the major problems with our country’s communications infrastructure is that it doesn’t provide high-speed Internet access to all Americans, it is troubling that this aspect of Sanders’ infrastructure plan isn’t receiving more attention. Indeed, even if it wasn’t part of a more ambitious economic package, a concrete policy for addressing America’s Internet access problem should be required of every presidential candidate.
As Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro explained to reporters in July, “less than half of the poorest American households have a home Internet subscription, and they face real barriers when trying to lift themselves up and better their lives because of it.” Part of the problem is that Internet service is particularly vulnerable to damage when the physical networks themselves are located in rural areas.
“The more rural the location, the more likely that there’s only one road in and out of that location,” said Sean Donelan, a former U.S. Homeland Security Department official who managed infrastructure for that organization, in an interview with Business Insider. “If someone manages to cut that fiber, you’ll generally see a one, or two, or three day outage.”
According to the Federal Communications Commission, the number of outages on high-capacity fiber-optic lines doubled from 221 in 2010 to 487 in 2014.
Even when the Internet is available, though, that doesn’t mean it will be high-speed—or even all that good. A recent study by Ookla Speedtest found that America ranks 31st in the world when it comes to average download speeds and 42nd in average upload speeds.
Instead of running on current technology, most of our telecommunications infrastructure uses the copper cables designed by Alexander Graham Bell—which, needless to say, wasn’t designed for streaming video or audio. While other countries have updated their networks, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed cable and telecommunications companies like Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, and AT&T to divide the various national markets amongst themselves and, thus, create monopolies throughout the country.
A recent study by Ookla Speedtest found that America ranks 31st in the world when it comes to average download speeds, and 42nd in average upload speeds.
“Left to their own devices, companies that supply Internet access will charge high prices, because they face neither competition nor oversight,” explains Susan Crawford, a former White House special assistant on science, technology, and innovation policy.
In addition to gouging customers, the status quo allows monopolist corporations to simply stop building new networks or repair deteriorating ones when they no longer find it profitable (as Verizon did in 2010). And there isn’t much of any competition from other businesses to compel them to improve their service.
But the Republican candidates, given their belief in smaller government and cutting federal expenditure, are largely ignoring the need to invest in infrastructure. The only hope for an effective solution to America’s Internet problem will, thus, likely come from the Democratic side. The frontrunner in that party, Hillary Clinton, so far hasn’t offered many specifics about her economic plan, although the New York Times reported that it can be expected to “include standard Democratic initiatives like raising the minimum wage, investing in infrastructure, closing corporate tax loopholes, and cutting taxes for the middle class.”
Since her husband’s presidency focused heavily on Internet infrastructure spending, it’s fair to assume that his would comprise at least a part of her program, although that doesn’t mean she would adequately address the main issues. Sanders’ website, on the other hand, openly discusses needing to improve slow Internet service and repairing outdated Internet lines, although by lumping this issue in with transportation and education infrastructure problems, Sanders risks distracting attention from its seriousness.
Of course, even when Internet infrastructure initiatives are rolled into larger legislative packages, they can still pack quite a wallop. For example, President Obama’s signature economic stimulus package included $7.2 billion for broadband grant and loan programs. In the process, it extended broadband Internet to thousands of rural communities, prompting Obama to return to the subject this year. The ConnectHome program is expected to bring high-speed Internet to 275,000 public housing families in 27 cities, with several thousand individuals under the age of 18.
Even if the Obama administration doesn’t achieve its stated goal of giving 99 percent of Americans home access to high-speed Internet, this will still be quite an achievement.
Of course, even when Internet infrastructure initiatives are rolled into larger legislative packages, they can still pack quite a wallop.
The story that should best illustrate the importance of universal Internet access to our future is well-known but generally misunderstood. Some Americans may remember Al Gore allegedly claiming that he invented the Internet during the 2000 presidential election. But in truth, the bill he usually referenced—the High-Performing Computing and Communications Act of 1991—was largely responsible for commercializing the Internet, including developing the World Wide Web software that directly led to the Internet boom of the 1990s. And with it came the economic boom that has drenched that decade in nostalgia for so many Americans today.
While Gore wasn’t able to directly benefit from his work in furthering the Internet boom (though he did serve as second-in-command to the president widely credited for ‘90s Dot-Com prosperity), future politicians who follow his example may be lucky enough to have different fortunes. By fixing our telecommunications infrastructure, our next president could simultaneously increase jobs, cultivate economic growth, and expand the ongoing digital revolution to more people than ever before.
Let’s just hope Sanders’ rivals will follow his lead.
Matt Rozsa is a Ph.D. student in American history at Lehigh University who specializes in national politics. As a political columnist, his editorials have been published on Salon, Mic, and MSNBC.
Illustration by Tiffany Pai