The more money you make, the more likely you are to have high-speed wired Internet access at home. The less money you make, however, the more likely it is that your primary option for getting online is a smartphone, which doesn’t have the speed or capacity for users to take college classes, do homework, fill out job applications or complete any number of other necessary tasks.

But that could change if federal regulators vote later this month to adopt a proposal that could drive down the cost of wired Internet. Though change won’t happen overnight, one thing is certain: Continuing down the road we’re on will leave millions of people out of the mainstream of American life.

The new rules would make Internet access a public utility like electricity and telephone service and allow the Federal Communications Commission to manage broadband providers more effectively.

And there’s a lot that federal regulators need to address. The phone and cable companies that provide wired Internet access in the U.S. today — such as Time Warner Cable, Maine’s largest Internet provider — operate with little competition and no checks on what they charge consumers. The proposed regulatory changes would require Internet service providers to give other companies access to key infrastructure, like telephone poles, allowing competition and lowering prices.

The cost of wired Internet service is a major obstacle for the poor and working-class. Just 54 percent of Americans who make less than $30,000 a year have wired Internet access, compared to 88 percent of those with an annual income of at least $75,000.

U.S. consumers spend an average of $51 a month on broadband service, the Open Technology Institute found in 2014. The cost of Internet access drops when it’s combined with landline telephone and TV service. But the average bill for the total package is an estimated $160 per month — or more than 10 percent of a Maine minimum-wage worker’s monthly earnings.


Why is affordable wired Internet a necessity? Employers today take wired Internet access as a given, even when advertising entry-level openings. More than 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies require potential employees to apply online, and some don’t even allow job-seekers to apply in person.

Filling out that employment application on a smartphone is difficult, if not impossible, because of the device’s small keyboards and slow speeds. The same is true for other tasks, such as taking part in a video job interview or applying for student loans. What’s more, even moderate use of cellular data can push consumers over the monthly usage cap, requiring them to pay more for continued access.

Libraries have stepped up to fill the wired Internet access gap for low-income residents in their communities. But there aren’t nearly enough computers for all the people who want to use them — or staff to help those who need assistance.

If the new FCC rules are approved Feb. 26, the vote will meet with large-scale resistance from major telecom providers. And the decision won’t eliminate the divide between people with wired Internet access and people without it, but it will be a good start toward dismantling the caste system of digital haves and have-nots.

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