Broadband for All Starts With More Public Wi-Fi

A Wi-Fi kiosk in New York City.

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The 21st-century equivalent of Herbert Hoover’s chicken-in-every-pot promise is a faster internet connection in every home. It’s a laudable but, for now, elusive goal.

While working to reach it, however, the next president -- whether that’s Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, both of whom have promised far greater investment in public infrastructure -- must attain a more immediate objective: finishing the Obama administration’s work of connecting so-called anchor institutions across the nation.

Stories of public school students congregating outside schools or libraries so they can use their public Wi-Fi networks to do homework are stirring evidence of the digital divide. Addressing this inequity will require a broader definition of “anchor institutions,” which include not just libraries but public-transit systems and parks. Public Wi-Fi needn’t be confined by roofs or walls.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, roughly four in 10 of the nation’s schools, enrolling almost half of American students, do not have high-speed internet service. Even families with broadband access at home often need the services provided by anchor institutions. Many low-income households are “smartphone-dependent,” making them more likely than other users to reach data usage caps or to suspend or cancel service due to financial problems. And smartphones are less-than-ideal when it comes to filling out job applications or writing cover letters.

There is vibrant debate about how best to expand broadband speeds and access now, while keeping the system open and flexible to further innovation. The U.S. has made great progress in making the internet accessible to its citizens -- more than 200 million now have access to broadband at home, compared with 8 million in 2000 -- but it has to go much further, more affordably, and faster.

Under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the FCC must conduct yearly reviews of whether advanced telecommunications capability “is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion,” and take “immediate action” if it is not. When it comes to anchor institutions, and consumers who have nowhere else to turn for vital access, “immediate action” remains overdue.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.