Is Internet Access a Right or a Privilege?

Since the pandemic shutdown began in March, the importance of internet access has never been more obvious.

For those now doing everyday tasks via the internet — from work meetings to math homework to grocery shopping – broadband access has become a lifeline.

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But for the 18% of Illinoisans who, per the 2016 census, do not have a broadband internet subscription at home, that lifeline is cut off.

Fabian Bustamante, professor of computer science at Northwestern University, says it’s become apparent that America needs to shift from considering broadband access a privilege to treating it as a right. 

“Several governments (including France, Finland, Costa Rica and Spain) and the UN have even labeled broadband access a basic human right, similar to education and water,” he said.

Bustamante notes two critical areas in which the inequity has become most evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Telemedicine, in times like what we are currently living, for everyone, and all the time for remote patient care and monitoring and for access to specialists,” he said. “Education, so students don’t have to go to the public library to get internet access to do their basic work; all my kids’ schoolwork was based on Zoom meetings, Google classroom and using web references.”

State Rep. Ann Williams, who serves the 11th District in Chicago, agrees that internet access is no longer a luxury. 

“Everybody needs it. In order to survive in today’s society … you must have internet access,” Williams said. “And for the shockingly high number of Illinoisans who don’t it’s troubling to imagine how they’re getting on with their everyday lives.

“Making internet access a utility would offer important benefits in addition to increased access in critical areas, including the restoration of net neutrality principles and the protection of free speech,” said Williams. “Additionally, the unchecked growth of the shadow economy created by data and tech companies where our personal data is collected, shared, sold and monetized — often without our consent or even knowledge — could be slowed or controlled if internet access was a government utility and restrictions could be placed on the collection and use of our data.”

While rural areas of Illinois are more likely to have fewer options for broadband access (or in a few cases, none at all) another barrier to internet entry is affordability. Bustamante said most counties in Illinois pay about $50 per month for broadband access, which is out of reach for many.

Bustamante says that relying on market solutions and offering incentives to providers to increase access has not yet worked. 

“We typically have one provider per class of service (cable/DSL) with some options on satellite,” he said. “The ‘Connect America Fund’ where a company offer a very, very basic service in exchange for billions in subsidies doesn’t seem to have worked well.”

But he says there is strong economic incentive for increasing access. “Providing broadband internet access is known to be instrumental in social and economic development. Different studies have concluded that a 10-percentage point increase in fixed broadband penetration would increase GDP growth by 1.21% in developed economies,” he said.

Bustamante points to one state that could serve as a model for municipal internet service: “Utah has the UTOPIA consortium, 11 (now 16) Utah cities deploying and operating a fiber-to-the-premises network to every business and household.”

Still, Williams says she would anticipate significant pushback from the broadband industry in Illinois were legislation to create a municipal internet utility be proposed.

“A few years ago, I sponsored HB4819, the Broadband Procurement and Disclosure Act, which would have required all ISPs who do business with the state to adhere to net neutrality principles, and require ISPs to disclose any practices and terms in violation of net neutrality principles, including blocking, paid prioritization, or throttling,” Williams said. “I was shocked at the level and intensity of opposition to the bill, primarily from ISPs, despite the fact that the concept was wildly popular among consumers … Together, the lobbying interests of the ISPs and telecom companies are extremely powerful and we simply couldn’t compete against that.

“Since COVID, many of these issues have taken a back seat as we’ve tried to respond the immediate public health and economic impacts of the crisis. However, as we’ve moved out of the triage phase of the crisis, it has become clear that all the challenges we have already grappled with as a state have only been amplified by the pandemic,” said Williams. “I think our role moving forward will be to address these challenges with an eye toward the inequities that battling a worldwide pandemic has exposed. I think access to a free and open internet, which can be accessed by all communities, is on that list.”

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