On June 15th in a rare act of bipartisanship, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed house bill HB5 which aims to bring high-speed internet within the reach of the more isolated rural communities within the state.
The “Texas Broadband Bill” will establish a Broadband Development Office within the state government, and aims to demonstrate measurable progress in broadening access to high-speed internet across the state within one year of the bill becoming law on September 1st.
Other recent announcements of bills signed by Governor Abbott have drawn criticism from some, and applause from others (mainly his political allies).
- A bill to broaden access to medical marijuana for various conditions has been criticised for neglecting certain conditions and only approving a low concentration of the drug to be prescribed.
- A project to build a crowd-funded wall along the border with Mexico has drawn criticism from those who point out the failure of President Donald Trump to do the same, and the inhumanity of such divisive solutions to a complex issue.
But a bill that promises equal access to the Internet for all Texans — regardless of where they live? That has been welcomed unanimously.
An essential for daily life
For most of us, access to the Internet is taken for granted in our daily lives — if you’re reading this article then you likely assume (as I do) that high-speed access is available to you at all times. It comes as a shock when we pick up our phones or pull out our laptops to find that we can’t immediately access the Internet. But for many living in rural areas or under-developed countries, this is not a reality.
According to recent data from Statista, 48.6% of the world’s population is not yet online. While around 27,000 people gain Internet access every hour, and 69.8% of households in the Americas have Internet access, that still leaves a long way to go.
Many have come to rely on internet access in their daily lives all the more since Covid-19 struck. It’s become essential for daily life, in much the same way as we rely on readily available water when we turn on our taps or electricity in our homes at the flick of a switch. For many, the Internet is treated like a utility — an essential of life.
Internet access has enabled homeschooling, home working, and for many, access to healthcare and health insurance services where social distancing and stay-at-home orders prevented many from leaving their homes. Figures released within the first few months of Covid-19 lockdowns showed that internet usage had increased by 70%. The use of streaming services like Netflix and Disney+ also increased by over 12%.
It’s not just about convenience — many studies have highlighted the effects that are directly linked to Internet access including economic opportunity and social mobility. If you’re denied access then there’s a good chance you’ll have fewer opportunities in your life to accrue wealth or to improve your life more generally.
The effects vary at a geographical level (as one might expect) both within countries but also more significantly between continents. Statistics gathered within 2020 highlighted that in Africa only 39.3 % of inhabitants had Internet access compared to 87.2 % of Europeans.
The digital divide is also known to vary between genders — the same study showed that it affects women more severely than men (52% versus 42% by gender group).
Photo by Petter Lagson on Unsplash
How to bring broadband to rural areas?
One challenge that will need to be overcome by the Texas Broadband Development Office is how to bring high-speed internet to remote and rural areas. The challenges faced for Texans are less significant than in other countries — living in a developed nation where severe poverty isn’t a factor and basic services such as electricity are widespread are two factors in favour of broadening access. But difficulties exist nonetheless.
In built-up areas, the fastest and simplest connections are made possible by copper or fibre-optic cables that are prevalent and readily available. Extending these services into remote areas is often not cost-effective or viable for service providers.
The Brookings Institute has highlighted a number of key actions that need to be taken if all American households are to gain access, including measures to improve funding for expansion and to lower the cost to households (highlighting that a typical broadband connection costs over $60 per month which is unaffordable for many).
Technological solutions to social issues
In practical terms, the options mainly come down to technology. Aside from broadening the rollout of physical cabling and satellite connectivity, options include:
- The rollout of smartphones to areas with network coverage as has been done successfully in rural areas of Brazil and India. In Texas, network coverage may be a preventative factor for some at least.
- Internet deployed over electricity network grids. While this demands investment by power companies to upgrade their networks, this may be a route for Texas if appropriate state or federal funds can be diverted?
- Partnered initiatives to deploy wireless network grids (as has been successfully piloted in a joint venture between Microsoft and AirJaldi to bring WiFi access to rural areas of India)
The means that will be used in Texas to extend Internet access to all citizens of the state remains to be seen.
Clearly, though it’s an initiative that seems to favour all citizens rather than just a subset based on their political preferences.
Equal access, equal opportunities
What is clear though, is that giving equal access to the Internet to all citizens (or at least aspiring to do so via formal initiatives) is about more than getting everyone onto Facebook or facilitating ‘Netflix and chill’ across the globe.
The Internet is a means of giving everyone a chance at accessing the same services, the best prices, the most up-to-date information, and a chance at the same opportunities — regardless of their nationality, their gender, or their economic status. That in itself is surely the biggest motivator for getting people the world over, online?
This post was previously published on aninjusticemag.com.
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Photo credit: Franck on Unsplash
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