Defined by NAMLE, the National Association of Media Literacy Education, “Access is how, when, where, and how often people have access to the tools, technology, and digital skills necessary to thrive.” Especially in rural communities, access to the internet, television, radio, etc. are all essential to making sure people are well informed of what is going on in the world around them. What happens when that access to information is taken away from them? The information they need to stay updated on the important topics of the day becomes significantly limited and can cause a real issue in communication.
Net neutrality protections become essential when you take into account the socio-economic status of those in rural areas. Big internet providers in 2017 with the help of the Trump administration, broke apart the essence of net neutrality, which is to provide everyone with equal access to a free and open network. They have since had the power to hike up their prices for faster internet and got to control which of their services got to be faster or slower based on their own company’s agenda. Especially in rural areas, these internet providers without much competition can increase their prices however much they want because there is no one telling them they can’t. A Washington Post article by Geoffrey A. Fowler goes on to bring awareness to just how sneaky providers can be as they persuade you to pay for their highest price of internet service without guaranteeing that you will be actually receiving that speed you are paying for. Fowler states, “We don’t even know how much a “normal” Internet bill costs, whether people are getting the speed they’re paying for — or how much prices go up in areas without competition.” It is an internet access nightmare.
With internet providers free to control people’s access to certain websites, this left whole groups of people in the dark due to the immense cost that broadband providers were requiring. In Northern California, an article by The Trinity Journal titled, “Community foundations bridging gaps in rural technology access,” recognizes the more than $623,000 in technology grants awarded to the counties of Curry, Del Norte, Humboldt, and Trinity to support those without access to broadband internet due to the increased cost. People in these communities deserve high-speed internet just as much as people in the big cities and it shouldn’t be the provider’s decision to control who gets it and who doesn’t. The article goes on to state that “In fact, in 2016, the United Nations added the freedom to express oneself on the internet to its Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Refusing to provide internet service to one group of people and not another is a direct violation of this human right. An article by Consumer Reports, it states “The percentage of Americans saying internet service is as important as other basic necessities has increased during the pandemic, from 61% in 2017 to 76% in February 2021.”
Clearly, the pandemic heightened our need for access to the internet as it has forced us all to rely on technology to keep us connected to those important aspects of daily life. Schools were forced to transition suddenly to online learning, places of work switched to working from home and, relied on websites such as Zoom and other means of videoconferencing to keep business going, and being able to maintain relationships with family and friends on social media and messaging apps became essential. The majority of the population is getting their news and other information online and being an online media consumer is more important than it has ever been in past generations because we are in a time where if you don’t have access to this online media landscape, you are missing out on loads of information that can prove to be significantly limiting to those without access and can have seriously harmful implications. An example of this is noted in Health Affairs article, “Too Many Rural Americans Are Living In the Digital Dark. The Problem Demands A New Deal Solution,” when it says, “The lack of broadband in rural areas is one of the most striking inequalities in US society. Due to the lack of broadband availability, tens of millions of rural Americans aren’t able to “see” their doctor over the internet in the same way urban Americans can.” It goes on to state that 47 percent of the country’s 1,844 rural hospitals are operating without the proper means of telecommunication to reach their patients amid the pandemic. This is a horrible injustice for those living without proper medical care in rural communities who don’t have the same access to hospitals as urban populations do.
All of this is now in the hands of government officials and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to fight for net neutrality in 2022, so we can go back to all having an equal internet experience that would give everyone access to the news and information that they are being denied living in rural communities and make it harder for internet providers to favor their content over their competitors by controlling the speed at which they get to us. And fortunately, things are looking up. In an article by the Electronic Frontier Foundation by Ernesto Falcon, “With President Biden’s appointments of Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel and Gigi Sohn, a net neutrality pioneer, to staff the FCC’s leadership team, we can usher in a better era.” So thankfully, there is hope yet for a world in which net neutrality will thrive once again.