The City Broadband Forgot


Most Americans have a tolerance for change and the current moment is no different. In recent years, we have withstood hurricanes and rising seas, mass shootings and far right riots. These are both natural and man-made disasters. Some of us also know the trials of living, some for many months, without access to basic phone or internet service at home. I remember in my own apartment after Katrina feeling like I was on a desert island. At night, I waited to wake and trek to a wi-fi hot spot or a place where cell service functioned.

This feeling will now grip entire populations as people hunker down in homes without proper fast internet access. As of 2018, less than 10 percent of homes had high-speed fiber cable, also known as broadband. Those that do have it pay among the highest rates in the world. 5G, which allows bidirectional communications so fast you can do remote surgery, is almost nonexistent for average Americans. Large phone companies are rolling out small nodes of 5G in places with the highest commercial applications. Rural and less affluent urban residents suffer the highest chance of total exclusion from 21st century communications.

The global pandemic has exposed the faults in the U.S. telecommunications infrastructure.

The telecommunications infrastructure raises questions about our ability to weather the pandemic. How will citizens get public services when workers are forced to work at home? How will students finish coursework when classes migrate online? How will institutions broadcast vital information constituencies in need? Do they know that on the other end a sick person might just get a buffering signal, also known to Apple users as the spinning wheel of death? How will self-isolation feel to those without access to social media video chat functions?

During the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, the lack of telephone operators due to the sickness crippled the entire system. People shut-in could no longer call out. People already in isolation were apt to become more panicked.

In the short term, public places without room for social distance or regular cleanings have restricted access, making trips to coffee houses, hotel lobbies, and fast food wi-fi areas less viable. For Americans without good internet, these local spaces have better connections than we have in our own houses. When it rains, for example, I cannot screen a movie. I have a 4G phone but no network to plug into. The rollout of new services and their technologies follow the money, urging me to find a public hotspot so I can FaceTime a friend who can be on their couch.

For many communities, the public libraries and centers have served the vital function of connecting citizens. Unhoused people used them almost exclusively to find work and social services. Today, about a quarter of K-12 students nationally rely on them to do their schoolwork, according to the Benton Foundation. These government-funded institutions have been slowly cash starved for decades. Even those with broadband struggle to maintain their investments in quickly outdated terminals and stations. These institutions could be supported now to rent equipment and provide clean spaces. People will be seeking contact with the outside world so it would make common sense to provide it.

In the long term, the United States trails behind nearly every advanced society in their deployment of broadband and 5G. The Trump administration has said they “win the war” in these areas, but without public regulation or incentives. The FCC has focused on how Huawei will invade our cables, but has refused to force domestic companies to upgrade our networks to even the most basic standards for fiber and transmission speeds. Last week, they asked if telecommunications companies would please sign a pledge to open up more wi-fi hotspots, but not to increase bandwidth or lower prices. 

In contrast, China has wired between 300 to 450 million residences with high-speed fiber. Their Belt & Road development policy has funded telecommunications infrastructures throughout Africa and Latin America. Fiber is the backbone to connect to 5G cell towers. In Europe, unused fiber crisscrosses much of the continent. The EU and national governments have invested millions in applications that would serve civic needs, including being a part of a mass public gathering in a stadium. That fiber will light up through new tower networks being developed by Huawei and Ericsson. 

In all of these cases, governments, industries, and universities worked together to bring people closer before we would be so cruelly pulled apart.

Dr. Vicki Mayer is Professor of Communication at Tulane University, where she writes and teaches about communications infrastructures and technology. She joined the Tulane faculty in 2003, and since then has written three books and edited three more on media production and communication industries, including the development of Hollywood South locally. Her research, currently focused on the labor mystique that surrounds cloud industries such as Google, intersects with her teaching and innovation work to make knowledge production at the university accessible, relevant, and fun for students and their publics. Working collaboratively, the project works across disciplines and stakeholder groups to provide cultural news, reviews, visual images, documentaries, and analysis relevant to local audiences.

For reprints of this article, please contact Dr. Vicki Mayer.