One key storyline of this election season has been how presidential campaigns are using technology—whether it’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or email—to target voters online. But an arguably more important story is how, if elected, those candidates would help the 55 million Americans who don’t have access to the Internet at all get online in the first place.
Among the Democratic candidates, at least, those plans are starting to emerge. Last week, Hillary Clinton unveiled a $275 billion infrastructure plan aimed at fixing America’s roads and bridges, upgrading the country’s airports, and creating a $25 billion national infrastructure bank, among other things. The plan also includes a substantive section on ensuring every citizen not only has access to high-speed broadband but is equipped with the digital literacy skills they need to use it.
The Internet is just as vital a part of the country’s infrastructure as its roads, bridges, and electrical grid.
Meanwhile, the Rebuild America Act proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders earlier this year sets aside $5 billion a year through 2019 to expand broadband connectivity in underserved communities.
To the tech industry, these proposals signal a recognition that the Internet is just as vital a part of the country’s infrastructure as its roads, bridges, and electrical grid—and ought to be treated as such.
“Historically the sectors that get the most attention are energy, education, and infrastructure from the standpoint of roads and bridges,” says Michael Beckerman, CEO of the Internet Association, whose members include the likes of Google, Facebook, and Amazon. “Now in this campaign, because the Internet has become ubiquitous and so important to our daily lives, it’s going to be more of an issue.”
A New New Deal
The political discussion about Internet access today mirrors the discussion about electricity in the 20th century, says Adie Tomer, author of a new Brookings Institution report released today on the stark differences between broadband coverage in different metro areas. “This was a big part of the New Deal. A big component was making sure we had rural electrification,” he says. “You’re going to see the same thing happen in broadband.”
Tomer says Clinton and Sanders are “out in front” on this issue. It still remains to be seen where most of the Republican candidates stand. Aside from Senator Marco Rubio, who introduced a bill with Senator Cory Booker last year aimed at opening up spectrum for Wi-Fi use, conservative candidates haven’t added much to the access discussion.
Most of the country has access to some form of broadband. The problem is some people just aren’t taking advantage of it.
That is, not yet. Beckerman, who is also a former policy director for Republican Congressman Fred Upton, says he expects the GOP candidates to pay more attention to broadband access closer to the general election. “It’s still really early in the campaign,” he says. “But if you ask any candidate if there should be 100 percent access to high-speed broadband, it’s hard to disagree with that.”
It makes sense that the Democratic candidates are talking about these issues early on. After all, broadband access and adoption tends to be lowest in low-income communities, black communities, and communities with low educational attainment—all groups that tend to align with Democrats.
Whatever the candidates’ motivations, tech industry leaders welcome the attention. In particular, they applaud the attention Clinton’s plan pays to funding Internet adoption and digital literacy programs. Most of the country has access to some form of broadband, says Doug Brake, a telecommunications policy analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. The problem is some people just aren’t taking advantage of it. A federal program aimed at educating people about why the Internet is worth their time and money could make a real difference, Brake says.
“The real gains aren’t so much from building the infrastructure itself, and building networks, but getting that last 25 percent of people a stable Internet connection in their home,” Brake says. “That’s a real wave of opportunity, and it’s encouraging to see a presidential candidate talking about it.”
Clinton’s plan also emphasizes the importance of investing in digital literacy training in low-income communities. This part is particularly important, Tomer says, as more and more jobs today require computer skills. “And I do not mean coding,” he adds. “If you’ve learned how to code, you know how to use a computer. I’m talking basic-order stuff.”
Still, Brake and others say they need to see more from all of the candidates, including Clinton and Sanders, about how exactly they would implement these policies—particularly how they would guarantee high-speed broadband to the small fraction of people living in extremely rural or mountainous regions. In those places, the cost of building out a wire network can be prohibitively high, says Brake, who worries that high costs could turn broadband access into a partisan issue.
“Internet access should not be a partisan issue. It shoudn’t even be a political issue,” Brake says. “Broadband adoption is a real area of opportunity. If we put some effort and real government funding behind it, it can get a lot more people online, and have all sorts of spillover effects that benefit the entire economy and our productivity.”