Remember the days of dial-up internet? That unforgettable beeping-buzzing sound signaled entry into the “World Wide Web” with its vast amount information and instant communication at your fingertips . . . until, that is, someone decided to use the phone and interrupted your connection! Fast forward to today, and high-speed broadband internet seems like a necessity. It has fundamentally changed how we do everything from watching television and paying bills to keeping in touch with friends and family around the block and around the world.
The availability of broadband expands educational access and boosts economic development and opportunities for business growth. It opens opportunities to work remotely, allowing people to live where they choose even if their job is elsewhere. And, for older adults who want to stay in their homes and communities as they age, broadband can ease social isolation, support innovative mobility solutions, and enhance access to telemedicine. Imagine being able to see a doctor via a video call or have a chronic condition monitored remotely instead of finding transportation to and from the doctors’ office.
The Challenge of Availability
But, broadband and its benefits are still not universally available. According to Pew Research, a little more than one-third of rural Americans (37%) do not have high-speed internet at home, while one quarter of city dwellers and a little more than twenty percent of folks in the suburbs lack home broadband.
Progress is challenging when expanding broadband infrastructure needs to be balanced with other priorities and limited budgets. This is particularly true in communities that are not densely populated or where the local topography makes installation difficult. In cities and suburbs, the baseline infrastructure is there, but there is an education gap in many underserved communities and the costs of home broadband and computers puts it out of reach.
There is also a lack of agreement among policymakers about whose responsibility it should be to make sure local residents can get online. Some prefer a public sector solution to ensure universal, affordable access. Others view network deployment as a private sector matter, which raises questions about how to best encourage private investment.
AARP and Localities Stepping Up
Across the country, there are terrific examples of local leaders stepping up and making expansion of broadband a priority. At a recent AXIOS “Innovating the American Metropolis” seminar, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke explained the game-changing economic impact of his city’s smart grid of free fiber-optic internet service in every single home and business. Bristol, Virginia; Lafayette, Louisiana; and hundreds of other communities are installing their own publicly-owned internet to some degree.
And, at the state level, AARP is advocating for policies that will help connect older Americans and their families to the digital world. In Georgia and Mississippi, we successfully advocated for legislation that will allow electrical cooperatives to offer broadband services. In Arkansas and Vermont, AARP worked to pass legislation that would make it easier for municipalities to apply for federal and state funding, respectively. AARP Indiana worked very closely with Governor Eric Holcomb who proposed an ambitious $100 million investment in the state’s rural broadband efforts, and AARP North Carolina is supporting Governor Roy Cooper’s effort to expand broadband access to the state’s unserved and underserved areas. This $9.8 million initiative is expected to bring improved internet access to over 10,000 households and businesses.
These are positive steps forward, but there is a lot of work left to do to ensure that every household is on the right side of the digital divide. AARP will continue working at the local, state, and national levels to help make sure that the promise of broadband is fulfilled for older Americans.
Nancy LeaMond is the chief advocacy and engagement officer for AARP, widely seen as one of the most powerful advocacy organizations. Leading its government affairs and legislative campaigns, she has the responsibility of driving the organization’s social mission on behalf of Americans 50-plus and their families. She also manages public education, volunteerism, multicultural outreach and engagement, and she directs major AARP initiatives that include supporting family caregivers through advocacy, education and innovative programs, and expanding AARP’s local footprint in communities across the country.