Why the Internet Should Be a Public Utility

Why the Internet Should Be a Public Utility
Illustration: Jim Cooke
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The internet is here, it’s just not evenly distributed. While some people have access to high-speed fibre-optic cable running to their house or phones ready to connect to 5G, there are also swaths of broadband deserts where people can’t access internet at reliable speeds.

Decades of disinvestment have left communities in what are essentially Sahara, Gobi, and Mojave deserts of internet access where rickety old DSL and other hookups bring unreliable and slow internet to the masses. At least 21 million in the U.S. don’t have access to high-speed internet. Under normal circumstances, that’s a problem, but during a pandemic where everything from schooling to doctor’s appointments are conducted online, it’s a nightmare.

The free market has done little to close this huge gap — and is in fact the reason it exists in the first place. Absent ISPs suddenly growing a heart or seeing beyond short-term profits, the problem will remain intractable unless we act. One option is for communities and legislators to take matters into their own hands and treat internet infrastructure as a public utility like its own power lines, generating stations, pipes, and water treatment plants. There’s plenty of precedent from the Rural Electrification Administration of the New Deal to the post-war interstate highway system. Both improved people’s quality of life and strengthened the economy, and isn’t that what a government’s role should be?

To get a handle on what a public internet could look like and its benefits, we spoke with Abdul El-Sayed on this week’s episode of System Reboot. El-Sayed is a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate endorsed by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, as well as a doctor, author, and podcaster.

He ran on a platform that would have, among other things, brought statewide U.S. public broadband. We talked about his plan and what a more connected U.S. could look like. As a bonus, we also learned about Alex’s younger years growing up on internet broadcast from the top of a grain elevator. Who knew?!

You can find this and other episodes of System Reboot in the following places, and a transcript of the entire episode can be found below.