The Pandemic Has Exposed The Widening Broadband Gap

I never worried about internet until I moved to a rural community. Now it’s a constant aggravation.

When I moved out of Boston in March 2020, with the pandemic at my heels, getting enough broadband bandwidth to work reliably from home wasn’t the biggest worry on my mind.

It wasn’t even too big of a concern a half-year earlier, when I’d started looking for a house to buy. In the hazy summer of 2019, I’d simply been enchanted with Vermont’s natural wonders and its laid-back vibe, a stark contrast with Boston’s buttoned-up mentality.

I realized that I didn’t have to keep struggling with Boston’s traffic — at the time, on track to become the worst in the U.S. — and its never-ending road construction. I didn’t have to frown at the film of grime that settled over every fresh snowfall. I didn’t have to deal with the stress of navigating the creaking, groaning T, packed in with other commuters.

I was tired of living in a 500-square-foot apartment that I paid a premium for just so I could live within walking distance of the T. I already worked part of my week remotely; there was no reason, I realized, that I couldn’t take meetings over the phone from a house with a view of the country.

Broadband: A Key Factor In the Home Search

Good broadband and good cell service were important elements of my home search. I didn’t know how crucial they would become just a few months later.

And finding a home where I had access to both broadband and a cell signal turned out to be surprisingly difficult.

Even though plenty of homes were on the market in my price range, more than a few were crossed off the list when I checked area providers and their max broadband speeds. A few more were X-ed out when I visited the properties, held up my cellphone and looked at the bars.

When I settled on a house in the village I now live in, I thought — naively — that I’d have a choice of fast broadband providers, based on a state-maintained map of available broadband services in the area.

Not so much.

25 Mbps is Not Broadband

Legislative shenanigans locked out a fiber-optic broadband competitor and limited my choice to just one service: cable behemoth Comcast. The only other residential broadband allowed in town is spotty 25 Mbps service from the local landline phone company, or spotty 25 Mbps service from a national satellite company.

I think most of us can agree that 25 Mbps doesn’t remotely meet the broadband needs of the average American.

If I’d chosen a house just a couple miles up the road, I could have had 10 Gbps at very attractive rates.

Instead, I have one real choice: Xfinity. While 150 Mbps over coaxial cable is a miracle of engineering — it really is; read up on VDSL vectoring sometime — the price is well above what I paid for 300 Mbps of FiOS at my old apartment. (Comcast does offer up to 1 Gbps in some locations, but in rural areas, forget it.)

And I’m one of the lucky ones, because I can afford to pay what Xfinity is charging for decent broadband. Many of my neighbors haven’t worked since last March. While paying rent is optional for now, paying the cable bill isn’t, and some that I’ve been able to talk to have turned off their cable and internet subscriptions — remarkable in an area where over-the-air TV signals are almost nonexistent.

My neighbors instead keep their mobile subscriptions up to date, and stream through a mobile hotspot. Which should tell you all you need to know about the state of consumer broadband in the U.S. today.

Reaping What We Sow

Starting from about 2009, the U.S. had a shining opportunity to build high-speed broadband highways in all 50 states. Political polarization, government infighting, corporate interference, and outright corruption in some cases stalled the National Broadband Plan — an initiative that wasn’t even that ambitious. Today, the FCC still doesn’t have an accurate map of available broadband.

Citizens outside the major cities are reaping the mealy, worm-ridden fruit of that badly implemented broadband plan. Rural broadband was terrible in 2009; now, 12 years later, it’s still pretty awful.

Some of you may complain that big government is the worst choice for managing broadband expansion. I get that. The government doesn’t do everything well.

But electric and water utilities are two things that big government got right, eventually. Almost a century ago, regulation starting with the Roosevelt administration recognized that clean water and affordable electricity would help drive economic growth and build a stronger, healthier population. It wasn’t perfectly done, but a majority of the country had electricity and running water within two decades.

We’ve had every opportunity over the past 25 years to build networks that would be the envy of the world. Instead, the rest of the developed world zoomed past like we were standing still. Liechtenstein has faster fixed broadband than we do.

Now that we’re largely homebound by the pandemic, the stark reality of broadband is apparent. At the still-closed town library, cars idle on the curb, their occupants using the library’s Wi-Fi, which the staff has left on since last March. Few children were able to get online for remote learning, so the local school district didn’t even attempt it, writing off the last two months of the 2020 term. Now, schools are open again, but hours are limited and online homework isn’t an option. Too many kids just don’t have access.

This didn’t have to happen.

America’s infrastructure mess extends well beyond the current state of politics. We’re a country that’s no longer driven by its potential, but by profit, a short-term goal at best. Evangelical mega-churches preach the doctrine of wealth, promising cash for prayers as if guided by a modern-day Mammon. We don’t invest in young people any longer, nor in a future that unborn generations can thrive in. We don’t see infrastructure as an economic driver. We don’t see health as the cornerstone of wealth. We’re missing all of these touchstones for success in a mad, relentless drive toward short-term stock market gains and a perverted image of success.

The result is the stunted, twisted reality that we actually live with. Instead of moving forward together, we’re watching our fellow Americans dwindle on the other side of the economic gap, one made worse by a failed broadband deployment.

Our country’s failures over the past three decades — really, our failures, as the generation that’s supposed to be in charge now — have been made clear by the pandemic. It’s not just a virus that is killing our country; it’s a refusal to invest for true long-term gains. It’s a refusal by both corporations and the government to invest in the things that really drive GDP: education, health, infrastructure. That includes communications infrastructure, and especially broadband.

Why Fast Broadband Matters

Deep into winter, I logged into a Zoom call to celebrate a friend’s birthday. One of our group was silhouetted on the video screen by the dome light inside his truck.

“My internet can’t handle Zoom, even with the video turned off,” he explained, shivering from the subzero cold even though his truck’s heater was running. “I’m using my cellphone instead, and I had to drive up to the top of the mountain to get a signal.”

We toasted our friend quickly so that guy could get down off the mountain and back into his warm house.

The problem of inadequate broadband extends far past schoolkids not being able to access homework that they’re not particularly motivated to complete. It shows up in places that corporatists and lobbyists never bothered to envision. The emergency call that doesn’t go through. The lost job opportunity — even the ability to apply for a job. The accessible apps that a disabled person can’t use, or never finds.

This kind of infrastructure work is expensive and unprofitable yet badly needed. Not just for today, but for the next century.

Writer, editor, would-be novelist. Stunningly mediocre martial artist. Friend of technology. Avid traveler.

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