A lot of us are old enough to remember when the internet was at once a novelty and a wonder. In the years since, it has become another essential utility, like electricity and running water.
For countless Americans, high-speed internet is an indispensable tool of their businesses and livelihoods and a portal for a variety of entertainment and educational options.
Access to high-speed internet — defined by the federal government as download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second — is largely taken for granted in most of urban America. The population density of cities and metropolitan areas made it feasible — that is, profitable — for providers to create the networks that offer global reach.
But that access remains elusive in many rural areas of the country, including in the Erie region. That only widens the growing divide between metropolitan and rural America, and hinders economic activity in areas where greater connectivity could mean opportunity.
As Erie Times-News reporter David Bruce detailed on Monday, 37.5 percent of Erie County residents — mostly in the rural southern and eastern parts of the county — don’t have access to high-speed internet. And the market forces that brought it to metropolitan areas are working against them.
Because of lower population density and the distances between homes and businesses, it often doesn’t pay for internet providers to expand their high-speed networks into rural areas. The return doesn’t justify the investment required.
But that leaves those areas at a disadvantage on a variety of fronts. Residents have difficulty working from home, operating an online business or engaging in distance education. They have fewer options for health care resources and information. They can’t tap into entertainment options, such as Netflix and other streaming services, because their internet access isn’t robust enough to support them.
Some observers compare the situation to the 1930s-era effort to extend electric service to rural areas nationwide. The federal government made loans to local cooperatives, many of which continue to provide service to this day.
Extending high-speed internet service to rural areas without it — which is vital to those areas as well as the nation as a whole — merits an effort of similar scale. If there are issues with potential for bipartisan agreement in today’s poisonous atmosphere, this is one of them.
President Donald Trump this summer said that expanded access to high-speed internet in rural America would be part of his infrastructure plans. Democratic lawmakers in September called for $40 billion in funding toward the same purpose.
“In the 21st century it is just as important as a telephone, water, sewer, roads,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in June. “It has become an infrastructure of necessity.”
— Erie Times-News