I made the front page of my local newspaper a month ago, but it wasn't for any great accomplishment of mine; it was because I live in a neighborhood that had eight power outages in six months, and like many of my neighbors, I was fed up. All of us have been working from home for a year now, and losing power every few weeks (often for no apparent reason) was not making any of us happy. So, I contacted my representatives, I contacted the mayor, and yes, I contacted my local newspaper. The question, of course, is why was all that necessary? I mean, in 2021, isn't it reasonable to expect that our electricity should be working?
And don't even get me started about internet service. It's well-known that Americans pay more than our European counterparts, and we get service that often isn't as good. I pay an outrageous amount to my internet & cable provider (Comcast) and there's not much I can do about it, because in all too many areas of the US, there is no competition. There's often just one provider in a region, and the consumer can either take it or leave it. Worse yet, numerous parts of the US don't have access to broadband at all-- and that has become a necessity in these days of online classes. (I've seen some studies that say one in three US households lacks even basic broadband. That is nothing to be proud of...)
As a professor, I've also seen the impact of that lack of access firsthand: I can't tell you the number of times when students of mine have endured persistent internet failures, or couldn't get connected at all. Depending on where you live, internet connections can be good or they can be awful, but access is often expensive, it's often unreliable, and there's not much you can do about improving it-- or so they tell you. (Meanwhile, the major providers run ad campaigns telling everyone how great their products are...as if everything is fine. But it's not.)
And it's no accident that we're in this situation. Way back in 2013, Susan Crawford, a professor and an expert on tech policy, published a book called "Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly in the New Gilded Age." She discussed how the federal government-- and politicians from both political parties-- allowed a few giant telecom companies to dominate the market, raking in enormous profits while all too many Americans either completely lacked access, or couldn't afford very much of it. Meanwhile, these giant companies successfully lobbied politicians (and made huge donations) to avoid much oversight. And here we still are, with little competition and outrageously high prices for inferior service.
In fairness, even if service were more affordable, it has been years since our electrical grid was upgraded, and the same is true for making high quality broadband more widely available. This past year has shown the flaws and the weaknesses in our infrastructure, and yet, I have not seen much movement from congress. In the last administration, we waited in vain for the "Infrastructure Week" that never came. In this administration, we finally got our "Infrastructure Week," but already, it is getting caught up in partisan bickering.
I am not suggesting that Pres. Biden's new plan is perfect; I know it's expensive and I am sure there are areas where it can be scaled back. But at least he brought a plan forward. Now, I'd like to see both parties have a serious discussion about improving our roads and bridges (which are indeed crumbling), and come up with some strategies to modernize our power grid and internet-- strategies that go beyond each side ridiculing the other's proposals. Meanwhile, I never know if a windy day will cause my electricity to go off. And many students either have no broadband or can't count on their internet to be reliable. So, yes, it's time to talk seriously about our failing infrastructure. And then, it's time to stop the bickering. We need fewer tweets, fewer slogans, fewer talking points, fewer partisan insults. It's time for our members of congress to do the job we pay them for. It's time to work together, to make the improvements Americans so desperately need.
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