Broadband is too important for this many in the US to be disconnected

Broadband cables

For the vast majority of us, broadband has become so commonplace in our professional, personal, and social lives that we rarely think about how much we depend on it. Yet without broadband, our lives would be radically upended: Our work days would look different, we would spend our leisure time differently, and even our personal relationships would exist differently.

But if broadband is an essential part of daily American life in the 21st century, how can we be comfortable with the fact that over 19 million households do not have a mobile or in-home subscription? Imagine if an electricity outage like the 2003 Northeast blackout occurred every day. Or if the Flint water crisis impacted the entire states of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. That’s the scale of broadband disconnect this country experiences.

Simply put, the country needs to make an aggressive case to reach universal broadband adoption. But what does that even mean? Compared to electricity and water, do we understand all the ways broadband impacts individual and community wellbeing? Based on an initial scan of academic and applied research, the short answer is no.

With communities all across the country exploring ways to overcome the digital divide, and with Congress sending clear signals about the importance to address rural disconnect, now is an opportune time to help policymakers and practitioners understand the benefits of pursuing new infrastructure, public policies, and training programs. For us, that process begins with understanding where the current state of knowledge is clear and where it falls short.

What is broadband?

First, definitions matter. When we refer to broadband, we are referring to three distinct but interrelated parts of the sector. The first is the digital telecommunications infrastructure, whether wireless or wireline technologies, that enable high-speed exchanges of data. The second refers to actual use of broadband technologies, including data plan subscriptions and the digital skills it takes to use a physical broadband connection. The third encompasses the federalist policy frameworks that govern physical infrastructure and related programming. Though broadband’s colloquial definition tends to focus strictly on the transfer speed of the underlying technology, broadband infrastructure can only reach its potential if every individual can use the service, and if policy frameworks are in place to support ubiquitous adoption.

Broadband benefits: What we know

Since the advent of the internet, academics and practitioners have studied how broadband will transform the economy and society. As a result, it’s not hard to find research confirming the benefits broadband delivers to individuals and the communities where they live. Even better, much of this research now has given way to everyday wisdom.

Consider the labor market. It’s now routinely expected that job seekers will use the internet to more easily identify and apply for jobs that match their skill sets and interests. Research even suggests that the lower cognitive lift associated with online job searches could reduce instances of labor market discouragement. In turn, businesses reap benefits from e-recruiting by decreasing labor market search costs and achieving productivity gains through increased efficiencies. Similar productivity gains can even be passed onto employees through higher wages and to consumers through lower prices. Broadband also helps employees increase their wages by sharpening their online and digital skill sets.

Broadband also has the potential to create happier, healthier, and more resilient societies. First, as an educational tool, broadband enables people to learn new skills to solve challenges or to develop new hobbies; it allows them to learn more about their health to better manage conditions and symptoms from home; and it can inform them about local issues, helping create tighter-knit communities. As a recreational tool, broadband increases and democratizes entertainment options, giving people more choice and freedom in how they spend their time. But it also democratizes information, allowing people to access new ideas, information, and resources from a variety of platforms. And as a social networking/communication tool, broadband makes it easier to maintain and connect with loose or physically distant social ties, helping people maintain a broader sense of community.

Lastly, broadband adoption has been shown to increase civic engagement. Since broadband reduces barriers to attaining information and interacting with local representatives, it increases the likelihood of voters voting, contributing to campaigns, and contacting their local representatives.

Broadband benefits: What we don’t know

Though there is a lot of excitement around broadband’s potential to reshape the economy, save the planet, or increase life expectancy, the technology is still in its early days and there is so much we don’t yet know. For one, we’re eager to see what effect the technology has on wealth generation and inequality. Though there’s early evidence that home values are higher in broadband-connected neighborhoods, there haven’t been enough robust studies on the topic for us to really understand how and to what extent wealth creation is happening. And since broadband helps raise incomes and build wealth for those with access, broadband is also likely to leave behind those without access. For that reason, it’s imperative researchers continue to study whether the digital divide is another contributing factor to the rising income inequality seen all across the country.

Given the wide range of technologies qualifying as broadband, we also don’t yet have standards around what universal broadband adoption would even look like. We’re left to wonder: Does broadband adoption at different speeds result in radically different outcomes? What is the minimum speed that should count in setting a universal standard? Do wireless and wireline adoption result in the same outcomes? And will the benefits look different across different geographies and socioeconomic groups?

Over the coming months, we’ll be exploring these questions in more detail. Relying on interviews with experts, number-crunching, and as much reading as we can handle, we hope to make clear the case for equitable broadband access across the United States so that everyone can enjoy its benefits.

We know how important broadband is to people’s physical, social, and economic health. With that knowledge, we need to keep building a narrative that reflects broadband’s essential status.

The Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings would like to thank the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for their generous support of this analysis.