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Amazing Progress and Coronavirus-Era Inequalities in Broadband Deployment

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Yesterday’s Washington Post’s Tech 202 column is an important coronavirus-themed broadband policy read. It is pure clickbait at the Technology Policy Institute, particularly since its editor, Cat Zakrzewski, joined TPI’s podcast recently.

Zakrzewski writes about COVID-19 pushing more of life and work online and exacerbating some the remaining broadband inequalities.  Separately, on a more optimistic note, she interviews analyst Blair Levin, who led the FCC’s Broadband Plan a decade ago.

Concerning coronavirus era digital inequalities, attendees of a recent Technology Policy Institute online event saw some new data on a coronavirus era inequality.  MIT Sloan School of Management  professor Catherine Tucker shared her findings and answered questions on her new study, Social Distancing, Internet Access and Inequality.

Tucker’s research casts a wide net, tracking 20 million mobile devices and their movements across physical locations, and whether they (and, thus, their owners) leave home that day for work instead of practicing social-distancing.

“We show that while income is correlated with differences in the ability to stay at home, the unequal diffusion of high-speed Internet in homes across regions drives much of this observed income effect,” Tucker said. “Devices in regions with either high-income or high-speed Internet are less likely to leave their homes after such a directive.”

By directive, Tucker means a work-from-home, social distancing status, which many people cannot attain. 

Separately, turning to Levin, the ubiquitous uber-analyst tells Zakrzewsky that unlike a decade ago, there is a bipartisan political consensus about the importance of universal broadband and a greater willingness to spend what is needed to achieve that goal, especially in light of COVID-19.

The marketplace, massive private investment, evolving technology, and Levin’s team’s handiwork, brought us a very long way. But, he’s right, despite amazing success, there are a few miles left to go.

TPI President Scott Wallsten, who Levin hired as his FCC team’s economist a decade ago, interviewed his former boss recently on the past and future of broadband policy on a recent episode of TPI’s Two Think Minimum podcast, touching on the plan’s successes and what is left to be done.  

“Probably the single most successful initiative of the plan was the broadband incentive auction,” Levin told Wallsten. “[I]t freed up a very significant amount of spectrum.” 

Citing satellites, 5G and Microsoft Airband, as some of the ways to close the remaining digital divide, Levin said, “I feel very confident  that in a few years we’re going to be where we need to be.”

One challenge, the pair noted, is adoption. Its exact cause is still being debated, but Levin said this “second gap” is a combination of “affordability, relevance and digital literacy.”

Ten years after the FCC Broadband Plan, Wallsten, the data-driven economist and policy expert is optimistic: “For the first time, bandwidth is not the constraint on economic growth and social progress, and that’s critical,” he said. “Now we’re in a situation which is, for the critical mass of Americans, we have enough broadband.”

He and other TPI scholars continue to study technology policy and the marketplace to develop policies to expand broadband even further. That and related topics will, for the 11th year, be the focus of top policy experts at the TPI Forum, held this year on October 16-18 in Charlottesville, Virginia, at the Boar’s Head Resort.