The internet should be a public utility. If you don’t believe me, go travel.
Once, not so long ago (12 weeks ago, to be exact), I was coddled in the land of good cell reception and robust internet service. It didn’t seem like it because internet providers have done a remarkable job at carving up the map into areas they service exclusively so they can inflate prices. Each time I moved over the past few years, there has always been a sole internet provider. Mind you, the Dayton area is not the sticks. We are the halfway point between Cincy and C-bus. We are a stone’s throw from Indy and Louisville and Pittsburgh and Detroit. The 70-75 interchange cuts through town. Add in the flat, open-land that allows wide broadcast range and lots of telephone poles, and we are a blank canvas ready for top internet speeds. Technologically speaking, we were not in the sticks. And yet.
Whatever stripe internet provider you had sent you a modem that they owned and it worked most of the time. It has to be rebooted or upgraded. Worse yet, you have to call customer service. You can’t threaten to switch providers because—ha!—they are the sole provider. Maybe, just maybe, you live in an area with two providers, who are essentially competing to be the vying to be the least bad business (like Trump Steaks vs. Trump Vodka). Oh, yeah, baby, tell me how your internet zooms along now with the furious burn of all that competition.
And that was my Ohio experience. Travel to rural areas, where there is no signal for miles and miles. Or even more densely populated areas where there is curiously spotty signal and no access to wifi. (I’m looking at you, New Jersey.) Or, if you’re in need of wifi and you come across a coffeeshop, but now you have to buy something because, indeed, it is not a public utility. In that case, the service is only for those with money, with a residence, with a place in the conventional world.*
We’ve now visited 18 states—many of them in densely populated areas and many of them in the proverbial sticks. One common thing throughout all these locales is that the internet (wifi access, cell signal, 5G—you name it) all sucks. Good access is the exception whereas a weak signal and lots of buffering is the rule.
Which brings me back to this: just make the damn thing a public utility. There’s no competition in the marketplace now because the providers have essentially gerrymandered their service areas like a bunch of Ohio Republicans. The product is milquetoast and the technology is archaic. (Think back ten years on your modem. It’s pretty much the same now.) America’s insistence on believing that a free market is actually a thing is what makes us fall behind in technology. Instead of spending trillions of dollars trying to stymy phantoms (RIP Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell), maybe we should invest in our citizens. You know, infrastructure.
Because the internet is actually a need these days. For job searches, for healthcare, for navigation, for most workplaces, for your child’s schooling, for your schooling and professional development. It is assumed that you will have access to decent internet. And yet, large portions of this country are helplessly antiquated because internet providers don’t see a market in those areas. Years ago we called it the digital divide. Now it is a chasm. I know a bunch of folks are going to say, well back in my day we used maps and phone books and the library. Right. But there aren’t phone books now and maps aren’t readily available because we have the internet. The public library offers lots of its materials online now. We’ve replaced iceboxes with refrigerators. We decided to make tires rather than wooden spoked wheels. It is time to make internet available to everyone and try to narrow the digital divide.
If you’re clutching your pearls right now about government interference and worried that making the internet a public utility would ruin it, then please don’t tell me to support the troops or back the blue. Sometimes a tax dollar can be wisely spent on something that doesn’t carry a firearm. You can go get a tall drink of cool water from your tap and wait for the next social security check to be delivered by the postal service (who drove there on the highway).
*The number one place to look for a job is on the internet. And yet we have a refrain from the haves in society that the bums should get a job. Great, then give them access to the job market by making the internet a public utility. The number one place to look for help is the internet. You can’t deny people the very thing they need to succeed and then complain that they aren’t trying. If you do that, it’s either stupid or cruel or both.