Blog Post

Broadband is the Vehicle. Digital Citizenship is the Goal.

    Author:
  • Francella Ochillo
| Nov. 09, 2021

It took years of focusing on the nuts and bolts of getting people connected for me to realize that even though investing in broadband access and adoption can transform communities, creating pathways for every person nationwide to experience digital citizenship is equally as important and encompasses that goal.  

Let’s start with the basics. There are different technologies that allow users to access the internet. Broadband is the fixed or wireless vehicle that ushers you online whereas an edge provider is the host or platform that shapes your experience once you get there.   

Specifically, broadband refers to the speed and reliability of an internet connection. In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) designated benchmark speeds at a minimum of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. At that time, many households had 10/1 Mbps connections (or less in rural and Tribal areas). Lower speeds enabled email access and making purchases online but could not support high-bandwidth applications related to, for instance, video conferencing or online gaming.  

The prevalence of high-bandwidth applications triggered calls from public interest advocates, members of Congress, and officials at all three levels of government to revisit the 2015 standard which is still being used to measure who has high-speed internet access today. Notably, advertised speeds often differ from the actual speeds delivered to a household, meaning that some households that pay for broadband subscriptions and are counted as served have internet connections that fall short of the minimum requirements.  

The internet was started with public funds. Decades later, it has yet to be declared a public good. A lesser-known fact is that the internet was started with public funds and always intended to advance the public good. What was originally designed to facilitate information-sharing among research and national defense entities transformed into an indispensable tool for government service delivery, workforce training, healthcare, civic engagement, and more.  

The internet was officially introduced to the public in 1993. During the following two decades, government agencies treated access as a luxury, developing agency rules and funding programs that allowed internet service providers to rely on self-reporting and market forces to determine which areas to serve. Consequently, high-speed networks were first deployed in densely populated and affluent communities. Hard-to-reach and impoverished areas would simply have to wait. 

The digital divide is not a product of the COVID pandemic. The digital divide has existed for decades. It refers to the gap between those who have access to high-speed connectivity, computing devices, and the digital literacy required to benefit from technology versus those who do not. Even though harms associated with the digital divide were documented in the FCC’s National Broadband Plan, the report was drafted in 2010 when the economic, social, and health consequences were treated as latent threats.    

COVID forced the ugliness of the digital divide into the light, and there was no looking away. Despite the FCC’s 2021 claims that it was a problem for less than five percent of the US population, the pandemic unceremoniously revealed digital inequities in every pocket of the country. Millions of people were starving for opportunities to work, learn, and access essential services that exclusively migrated online. Meanwhile, the most devastating illustrations seeped into public spaces and parking lots. It was everyone’s problem.  

There is a cost of inaction. Closing the digital divide is not only one of the most important issues of our time, doing so will determine who has access to information and the ability to participate in the workforce. It will change who is able to amass wealth and has the ability to age in place. For millions of Americans, being able to get online determines whether cries of injustice are heard and influences whether their ambition has geographic borders.  

The technical requirements of deploying digital infrastructure appear to be less complicated when underlying public policies demand that every resident have access to high-speed connectivity. And now that being able to get online has become as critical as having reliable electricity, understanding the complexities as to why millions of households are still disconnected is both necessary and urgent.  

Tribal communities, Black and Brown populations, rural areas, and households with disabled or elderly residents were familiar with the digital divide long before it had a name. They are the most disparately impacted by the lack of access, affordability, computing device, or skills training. They were also the most likely to have faced economic devastation, suffered from learning loss, or had to go without adequate healthcare throughout the pandemic. 

In the absence of federal support, underresourced local and state governments staged interventions wherever possible. But local and state officials, some tackling broadband issues for the first time during the pandemic, learned that the digital divide has stubborn roots. Congress is finally considering legislation to make a once in a generation investment into broadband programs. However, federal funding is not enough.  

Digital divides will persist for as long as government policy narrowly focuses on digital infrastructure and devices. The long-term goal must center on the need to bring digital citizenship within reach for every resident.  

Digital citizenship should be the goal. The pandemic ushered in a new appreciation for ubiquitous broadband connectivity. Yet, too often, new broadband programs have a myopic gaze on infrastructure and hardware. It is easy to conflate having broadband access and the tools to adopt with the ability to actually benefit from technology. Public policy should adopt a more holistic approach aimed at the ultimate goal of supporting digital citizenship. 

Digital citizenship is a term that I use to refer to people who experience the full suite of benefits that are available to members of an online community. The word citizen is derived from an Anglo-French word that infers rights, privileges, and responsibilities and presumes participation in a community. Similar connotations apply to digital citizenship, the state of being able to exercise freedoms and benefit from participation in a digital society. The term recognizes a need for people to not only be able to get online to consume but to be able to create in and contribute to an online ecosystem.  

Eliminating digital divides will require a herculean effort from public and private stakeholders across the country. The public funds used to support that endeavor will be susceptible to the same crippling flaws as long as we are unsure of who is disconnected and, more importantly, unwilling to declare that every person in the United States deserves access to digital citizenship. 

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Ochillo, Francella .Broadband is the Vehicle. Digital Citizenship is the Goal. .” Perspectives on Public Purpose, November 9, 2021, https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/broadband-vehicle-digital-citizenship-goal.

The Author

Photo of Francella Ochillo