A Signal Failure: Education, Broadband, and Our Children’s Future

In a new essay published by the Nonprofit Quarterly, Christopher tackles the connectivity gap in the context of the ongoing pandemic and how it could be solved by a variety of proven nonprofit models that are already connecting tens of thousands of Americans efficiently to fast, affordable networks.  

See an excerpt below, but check out the whole piece over at the Nonprofit Quarterly:

One of the longest-lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic may be the lost education opportunities for millions of children. While the vast majority of children studying remotely are adversely affected, several million students have no home broadband Internet access at all. As a result, they have been extraordinarily disadvantaged. For too many, public schooling has effectively ended.

[S]omewhere between 15 and 41 million Americans cannot buy a reasonable broadband connection today because their home is not served by an ISP. Most, but not all, of these homes are in rural America, and we typically talk about this problem as being one of “access.” Tens of millions more Americans live in a location that’s served by an ISP, but they cannot afford the fees or face other barriers such as lacking a device or digital literacy. This problem is typically referred to as a lack of digital inclusion, or the digital divide, although these terms are often tossed around loosely.

There is no single policy to solve the broadband problems faced by the nation. In most cases, better networks and lower prices would really help, but achieving that would require different strategies in rural or urban areas. Challenges around literacy and online safety/security will be more difficult.

The answer then is the answer now: nonprofit business models. In a nation as large and varied as the United States, a single business model rarely meets everyone’s needs. Universal electricity required some 4,000 municipal electric departments and nearly 1,000 rural electric cooperatives. And it worked. Not because municipal networks and cooperatives are magical, but because they have the right incentives.

Cities face a greater challenge because the stakes are higher. Cable and telephone lobbyists have shaped rural broadband subsidy programs but see an existential threat in programs aimed at improving urban Internet access. These are the most lucrative areas, even when they leave many low-income families behind.

School districts in many communities have realized they cannot wait for other solutions and have embraced building wireless networks serving students well outside school walls. Utah is piloting 25 of these networks, and San Antonio has committed more than $20 million to connect kids in their homes using Citizens Broadband Radio Systems (CBRS), which are expected to deliver higher through-put and reliability.

Building a new network takes time and scarce resources. But the long-term costs of subsidizing a broken market are substantial. Sooner or later, those costs grow to be too great. And even today, it is not clear that the slow basic connections offered by Comcast and others are enough for families to use the Internet effectively.

We face a choice. In the wake of the racial justice uprisings, is it time to demonstrate a commitment to real equity by building better networks using nonprofit and public business models? Doing so will allow communities to permanently solve connectivity challenges, improving equity in education, healthcare, and far more.

Read more over at the Nonprofit Quarterly.