COVID-19 HAS HIGHLIGHTED deep divisions in this country, from who has access to health care to who can afford to stay at home to how we educate our children. At play in every single one of these, is America’s pervasive digital divide. That is, who has access to the technology needed to weather the consequences of this pandemic –– and who does not.
Without basic broadband service, people can’t access telehealth, can’t telework, can’t apply for unemployment, and can’t access educational materials for their children. The members of IBEW see the inequities in information technology every day. It’s clear to us that COVID-19 has exacerbated and exposed these disparities.
The digital divide happens two ways. One problem is that rural areas don’t have access. In Massachusetts, 36 communities still lack broadband, which is inexcusable. The second, more widespread, problem is that countless people technically have access to broadband, but can’t afford it.
Being priced out of the digital world is less discussed than complete lack of access, but it affects even more people. The data are eye opening. According to Pew Research, 25 percent of Americans with annual household incomes under $50,000 are not online, compared to 5 percent of households earning $50,000 annually or more. Fifty percent of people who don’t subscribe to broadband cite cost as the reason, translating to 18.5 million American households that are priced out of broadband access. The situation is worse in the US than in other countries. The average monthly cost of telecom services here is roughly double that of European countries and South Korea. (US broadband alone costs an average of $66/month.) It’s not hard to imagine how that blocks access to resources across all domains of modern life.
How did we get here? How did this country end up with broadband prices double those of other developed nations? You can trace it back to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (TCA). This bill, no matter its intentions, paved the way for the modern digital divide to take root. Why do you only have one choice for cable and internet? Why is your monthly bill upwards of $100 for mediocre service? Why did thousands of communications workers across Massachusetts lose their jobs over the past decade? It all stems from the TCA. I know. Those were my workers. This is my industry. Those were our jobs.
The TCA was the first major piece of telecom legislation passed since the 1930s. It was intended to address the needs of a modern telecom industry, increasing competition and lowering prices. But instead, the bill’s emphasis on deregulation allowed for massive consolidation of telecom companies, less competition, and the usual outcome –– poor responsiveness to consumer needs, bad customer service, job loss, lack of motivation to innovate or enhance reach, and higher consumer prices.
In 2020, competition has all but vanished. Companies like Verizon and Comcast have a lock on the industry, allowing them to charge obscene prices for the basic services that any family needs to survive in a modern economy. Anyone who can afford to get a bill for these services is angry and frustrated every time they see it. Worse yet, millions of Americans can’t even afford to sign up. Plus, corporate consolidation has given telecom monopolies enormous lobbying power to prevent reforms needed to solve the problem. The result is a powerful and unregulated industry, in which the American people are the losers and giant corporations and their lobbyists are the winners. As usual, the situation is worse for rural communities and communities of color –– a problem coming into stark relief in the COVID-19 era.
Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey has highlighted this issue in recent days. Here’s the problem: Sen. Markey wrote the TCA. On the day of passage in February 1996, he proclaimed on the House floor that someday when members present were old, retired, and “sitting in their rocking chairs,” they’d be able to look back with pride and say, “I was there when the blueprint of the 21st century was noted on the floor of the House of Congress.’’
Markey was right about the bill being the blueprint, but wrong about the world it would help create: one defined by a seismic gap between those who have access to the information and technology a modern economy demands, and those who do not.
You can draw a straight line from the effects of the TCA –– industry consolidation, inflated prices, and massive political power that blocks needed reforms –– to the lack of affordable and high-quality broadband access for millions of Americans, which is putting health care, jobs, and education at risk today. Congress has to recognize the failures of the TCA and act aggressively to address them.
Funding for broadband, ironclad worker protections, and muscular regulation of the telecom industry all must be on the table as the House and Senate continue to enact emergency response measures in the face of COVID-19. And Sen. Markey shouldn’t rest until those policies pass. He owes us that much.
Myles Calvey is business manager for IBEW Local 2222. He is supporting Rep. Joe Kennedy in his Democratic primary challenge to Markey.