The last two years have shown us that home access to high-speed internet is no luxury.
When the pandemic hit, children needed to get online for school, their parents needed to connect for remote work and their grandparents could have used telemedicine to avoid being exposed to COVID in a doctor’s office.
Almost everyone needed a high-speed internet connection, but in Maine, not everyone could get one.
It’s called the “digital divide,” and it’s usually described as a problem for people who live in sparsely populated areas that aren’t served by commercial networks. But it’s also a problem for people who can’t afford to hook up. A fiber optic cable could come right by their doors, but they can’t afford to pay the $60 to $100 a month that internet service providers charge.
Last year, the federal government approved $65 billion for broadband access, with more than $120 million for Maine, a major public economic development investment comparable to the rural electrification program of the 1930s.
Much of that money is devoted to building networks so that millions of people can sign up for broadband for the first time. This month the Biden administration rolled out a program to help low-income people pay for service.
People with incomes as high as $25,760 for an individual or $53,000 for a family of four (twice the federal poverty level) would receive subsidies that would cap their monthly internet bill at $30 per month. The administration has said that through negotiations with large providers, millions of households will be able to get service at no cost. People can check their eligibility and find a provider on the website GetInternet.gov.
The program is expected to reach millions of Americans and provides a long-overdue approach to getting internet service to people who can’t afford it. It is established that cost is as much a barrier to service as access to a network. The Pew Research Center last year found that although only 1 percent of adults with annual incomes over $75,000 do not use the internet, 14 percent of those with annual incomes under $30,000 are not online. It also found that families in the lower income group were eight times less likely to have internet in their homes than the families with higher incomes.
The federal government should not stop with this subsidy program when it addresses the affordability component of the digital divide. Internet service providers will get a lot of new customers as the government pays to extend service to areas that have not been worth serving when the companies were stringing the wires, and it would be a shame if the businesses were allowed to use their near-monopolies to drive up prices for everyone else.
Cable TV companies are famous for using predatory pricing tactics to drive out competitors, even when the competition comes from municipal broadband agencies. The cable companies famously offer low introductory offers that shoot up after a few months, and the real cost of service is obscured by hidden fees that aren’t disclosed until after the service is hooked up.
These practices are barely tolerable for an entertainment product like cable TV, but they cannot be accepted for a necessary service, especially since the infrastructure is so heavily subsidized by the public.
Competition between ISPs would be one way to control costs, but it is not always possible to create competitive markets in remote areas. Public and municipal systems will be needed to keep the commercial providers honest.
This piece originally appeared in the Portland Press Herald May 10.