Commentary: Universal broadband internet access is a must

By James Dickinson

This pandemic makes it clearer than ever: It’s past time for all Delawareans to have high-speed, broadband internet.

High-speed, broadband internet access is now an undeniable necessity for individuals, families, businesses and community organizations. This has been true for many years, but the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the urgent need for those in underserved areas who have no access or inadequate access. This is most profound in rural areas that have both geographic isolation and a lack of reliable internet service. It is a form of rural discrimination that has real-world negative consequences for Delawareans. The lack of broadband negatively affects many lives, hurts the local economy and makes Delaware less attractive to businesses.

Broadband internet access is as essential to life today as access to a phoneline or electricity was decades ago. In the wealthiest nation in the world, there is simply no excuse for people to lack an essential utility. It may be that people do not understand it or do not believe that the problem exists. Even if you have the financial resources (not a reality for many in the times of COVID-19) to have satellite-based internet or a cellphone with a hot spot to provide a home connection, there are significant drawbacks:

• With satellite/cell-based internet, there is no such thing as high-speed, unlimited access — no matter how much you pay. At some point, often midmonth, you hit your limit and you are slowed down to a crawl. This is true even with the high-end plans, where you typically pay three to five times more than those in areas with actual hard-wired broadband.

• Satellite services are sometimes overwhelmed and often interrupted or slowed to an unusable level in evening hours when business use overlaps with home use of satellite capacity.

• Satellite/cell-based internet is unpredictable. In bad weather, it slows down or stops working completely. If you are in the middle of your work or school day, you have no other options.

• Satellite-based internet (the most widespread option in rural areas) has a delayed signal. For instance: If you are in a videoconference, the signal must go 22,236 miles up to a geosynchronous satellite, then 22,236 miles back to a receiving station that then patches it into the internet. If you try to access certain types of secure websites or databases, like financial services, you get locked out because the response is too slow. It is a lie to call satellite-based internet high speed or equivalent to hard-wired broadband services.

• Even if all other factors are working perfectly (i.e., the skies are clear, the satellite is not overwhelmed, etc.), download speeds are so slow that many people must wait absurdly long times to download files or drive miles to a location with publicly available broadband. This is discouraging to business and a barrier to remote work.

There are ample resources to properly wire the entire state of Delaware with broadband internet access for everyone. It is a matter of will. In our modern world, it is undeniable that reliable, high-speed, broadband internet access is necessary to access health care, financial services, employment and education.

COVID-19 makes the need even more obvious. And, certainly, this will not be the last pandemic in our lifetimes. Delivering broadband internet services to everyone in Delaware prepares us for that future: remote work, remote education to protect our children and teachers, telemedicine services, community connection in times of isolation, delivery of food and supplies, and the need to access the vast sea of other opportunities and resources the internet makes possible.

We can transform our infrastructure and guarantee thousands of jobs if we make this investment through a comprehensive Green New Deal. It took the New Deal to get us out of the Great Depression and lay the foundation for decades of growth and prosperity; it will take a Green New Deal to do the same now. Universally available broadband internet access for every household should be part of that.

James Dickinson is a resident of Georgetown.