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The Digital Divide Is Closing (and Free Markets and Capitalism Did It)

According to new data from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the “digital divide” is closing.

Now, before we get into the data, it’s important to note that the definition of the digital divide has changed over time. You would think “digital divide” would mean people without Internet access, and that’s what it used to mean.

But today, when we talk about the digital divide (at least in the developed world), we’re talking about access to always-on broadband Internet access. And to further complicate things, the definition of broadband has changed as well.

Prior to 2015, the FCC’s definition of broadband was an always-on connection of at least 4 Mbps (megabits per second) download speed. This was more than enough for the average household to access email and websites, download music, shop online, etc. But in 2015 the FCC voted to change the definition of broadband to a minimum of 25 Mbps download speed. This change in definition was partly in recognition of current reality (including the proliferation of devices in the average household), but we also believe that the Obama FCC more than quintupled the definition of broadband in one fell swoop in order to exaggerate the digital divide and thus justify its regulatory and subsidy interventions in the broadband marketplace.

Regardless, even with a politically inflated definition of broadband, the great news is that the digital divide is closing, and it didn’t require net neutrality, huge federal subsidies, or other federal interventions in order to accomplish it. Specifically, from December 2016 to December 2018,

  • The number of Americans without any options for at least 25/3 Mbps broadband fell by 30%, from 26.1 million to 18.3 million.

  • The number of Americans without any options for a gigantic broadband connection, 250/25 Mbps, fell by 74%, from 181.7 million to 47 million.

The data also show that much more broadband competition came on-line in those two years.

  • The number of Americans with more than two options for 25/3 Mbps broadband increased by 52%, from 45.9 million to 69.8 million.

  • Even the number of rural Americans with two or more options for 25/3 Mbps broadband increased by 52%, from 14.4 million to 22 million.

Why does this matter? It demonstrates that the FCC’s move toward more market-friendly and less regulatory policies since 2016 is bearing fruit, and that we didn’t need the heavy hand of regulation and federal intervention insisted upon by the Obama-era FCC in order to close the digital divide and roll out new and better services to the American people. It turns out that free-markets work to promote innovation, new products and services, and more competition. Who’d have thunk it?