By Tom Conway
USW International President
The slow, spotty internet access in rural Colorado plagued Steve Hardin for years, foiling his efforts to send emails and pay bills online, but the poor service never irritated him as much as the time it hurt his stepdaughter’s grades.
She was attending college remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic when the internet suddenly went out, causing her to miss deadlines for several assignments.
“Late is late, whether your internet is great or not,” said Hardin, noting she got docked for the delay.
With huge disparities in internet access across America, building out the information superhighway will be as essential as modernizing roads and bridges as the nation strives to rebound from the pandemic, grow a more powerful economy and forge a brighter future for all.
The American Jobs Plan, President Joe Biden’s comprehensive infrastructure program, calls for investing $100 billion in affordable, high-speed broadband for Americans who cannot afford internet access, live in areas without service or, like Hardin, struggle with low-quality, hit-or-miss connections.
These investments would support American workers — including those making optical fiber, the key component of broadband — at the same time they eliminate the nation’s vast digital divide.
The pandemic, which forced many workers to perform their jobs remotely and students to study online, showed that reliable internet service isn’t merely a convenience but a necessity.
Too often, however, the quality of service depends on where a person lives. An interactive map recently published by the U.S. Commerce Department shows that people in more affluent areas enjoy high-speed internet, while those in rural, poor and tribal communities struggle with low-quality service, if they get service at all.
“We’d love to have better internet — something affordable,” said Hardin, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 14482, which represents workers at the LafargeHolcim cement plant in Florence, Colo.
“It’s pretty pitiful,” he said of the current access that a telephone company provides to his home and beef ranch about 30 miles from the cement plant. “You can’t do pictures. You can’t download them or send them. FaceTime is non-existent. We’ve lost internet service for three or four days at a time.”
The internet has the power to tie the nation together, re-energize the economy and open the doors of education, employment, health and civic participation to all.
But right now, the digital divide isolates large swaths of the country, perpetuates inequality and undermines the nation’s future. Uneven access not only personally disadvantages certain citizens, like Hardin’s stepdaughter, but prevents them from bringing their talents, skills and ideas to the table.
“Her teacher said, ‘Too bad, so sad, I guess you should have gone somewhere else to get the assignments in,’” recalled Hardin, who lives in a sparsely populated county where many households lack broadband.
Rural areas like his often lack high-speed internet because providers refuse to make broadband investments.
Biden is collaborating with a bipartisan group of senators to move an infrastructure package forward. However, there’s no time to waste. Both houses of Congress need to move quickly to pass legislation implementing the American Jobs Plan.
“Educating folks about this infrastructure program is very important,” explained David Beard, executive board member for USW Local 752L, the union for about 1,500 workers at the Cooper Tire plant in Texarkana, Ark.
Beard travels around rural Arkansas to speak with fellow union members about the importance of the American Jobs Plan and the USW’s “We Supply America” campaign, which aims to ensure that U.S. workers provide the raw materials and manufactured goods for publicly funded infrastructure projects.
While Beard long understood that rebuilding roads and bridges, repairing the state’s deteriorated dams and modernizing aging schools would help to boost the economy, the pandemic drove home the need to extend quality internet to counties where very few households have broadband.
“It’s become a safety issue, and it’s become an education issue. And just consider the economics of it,” Beard said, noting the spouses of a couple of his co-workers rely on the internet to operate their makeup and jewelry business.
Donneta Williams knows there’s no excuse for a digital divide when America already has the skills and resources to eliminate it.
Williams, president of USW Local 1025, represents hundreds of workers who make optical fiber — the brains of broadband — at the Corning plant in Wilmington, N.C.
They turn glass into a technological marvel, fiber as thin and flexible as thread, yet stronger inch for inch than steel and capable of reliably carrying voice, data and video at high speeds over tremendous distances.
“We know what we do is vital.” Williams said. “When you hear about ‘bandwidth,’ that’s optical fiber.”
“It’s a craft,” she said. “It’s not something a computer is going to be able to teach you. We make sure we put out a quality product so the signal doesn’t drop.”
Their product kept America functioning during the pandemic. Now, Williams looks forward to a national broadband expansion that would enable her members to deliver the life-changing technology to more homes, paving the way to digital equality and a stronger nation.
“Our fiber makes it possible,” said Williams, noting the broadband push would create jobs for those who manufacture not only fiber but various other components of internet systems.
For Hardin, who lives miles from a library and other public buildings that could afford him internet access when his goes down, speedy and reliable service cannot arrive fast enough.
“Are you going to take anything off my bill?” he once asked a telephone company representative after losing his internet for days.
“Of course,” Hardin recounted, “he said no.”