With 2020 in hindsight and a new administration leading the U.S. federal government, Americans need to start thinking about the future and how to move forward into the 21st century. Clearly, the current infrastructure—both physical and digital—needs a plan, and on Jan. 25, President Joe Biden took his first action toward achieving his goals. Much of Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan focuses on strengthening the manufacturing sector, which it should. Still, more focus needs to be directed toward creating sustainable digital, not just physical, infrastructure.
What does the Build Back Better plan say about the internet?
Before discussing why and how we can’t build “back” better, understanding where digital infrastructure fits into the plan matters. A quick look at Biden’s plan mentions the following:
Mobilize American ingenuity to build a modern infrastructure and an equitable, clean energy future. We’ve seen the need for a more resilient economy for the long-term, and that means investing in a modern, sustainable infrastructure and sustainable engines of growth — from roads and bridges, to energy grids and schools, to universal broadband (emphasis added). Biden will soon release updated proposals to meet the climate crisis, build a clean energy economy, address environmental injustice, and create millions of good-paying union jobs.
The plan’s quick nod to universal broadband highlights how politicians continue to ignore the rapidly evolving world of work. Across all industry verticals—including manufacturing and agriculture—universal broadband needs to be considered an essential infrastructure element. To move a step further, not only does broadband need to be a necessary element of any infrastructure plan, but cybersecurity for the accompanying technologies needs to be incorporated into them.
Why does universal broadband matter to “red state” interests?
After the 2020 election, much ado was made about conservative voters remaining loyal to the previous administration. However, as much as that discussion needs to, and in some cases did, revolve around systemic racism and white supremacy, it often failed to address particular rural area needs.
A Politico article by Bill Hogseth, “Why Democrats Keep Losing Rural Communities Like Mine,” addresses a primary concern facing these areas:
The digital divide is also real: About 28 percent of rural Wisconsinites lack high-speed internet, which stifles rural economic growth. Working from home or starting a new business is next to impossible in today’s economy without high-speed internet. Kids can’t learn from home without it either.
In its penultimate paragraph, the article points out that, although ambitious, the federal government needs to bring high-speed internet to the entire country, similar to the New Deal Rural Electrification Act.
The article, nearly close to correct in this sentiment, ignores the larger issues by focusing on working from home, starting a new business and learning remotely. All of these assume that universal broadband should respond to the pandemic rather than a business need for all industries.
Agriculture uses Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) devices for everything, including livestock monitoring and water conservation. Manufacturing uses them for similar purposes, from predicting maintenance needs to ensuring worker safety. Yet, industries newly relying on high-speed broadband are often located in areas that lack this essential infrastructure.