Expanding broadband infrastructure to reduce carbon emissions

A reliable internet connection has proven invaluable during the global pandemic, allowing people to work, learn, and receive medical attention while sheltering in lockdowns. Our world revolves around access to the internet: the electricity of the 21st century. Now, through the latest effort to expand broadband access, we can give more people the opportunity to use new digital tools to manage their energy use.

The pandemic has brought into clearer focus the digital divide between those who have high-quality broadband and those who do not have access due to lack of infrastructure or affordability. As of 2021, the Pew Research Center reports that 28 percent of rural Americans, 43 percent of low-income households, and about 32 percent of racial minorities do not have access to high-speed broadband at home. Rural areas suffer more predominantly from lack of availability (e.g., infrastructure), while low-income households in urban areas lack access to affordable internet service providers. When it comes to affordability, 54 percent of Hispanic users and 36 percent of Black users worry about paying for their home internet service, similar to the percentage of those who worry about paying their cellphone bill. Due to the United States having some of the highest broadband prices amongst developed countries, as well as a lack of broadband infrastructure in some areas of the country, the lack of broadband is a major impediment to employment and economic development.

The focus on building back better has sparked interest in addressing the digital divide. President Biden’s American Jobs Plan may allocate funds to expand on nationwide broadband infrastructure, aiming to “bring affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to every American, including the more than 35 percent of rural Americans who lack access to broadband at minimally acceptable speeds.” Additionally, accelerating the digitalization of the U.S. broadband grid can create opportunities for decarbonization across multiple sectors of the economy.

To close the digital divide and address the challenges of high-speed broadband adoption and affordability, there are several actions Congress can take. Congress should increase funding for programs like the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Broadband ReConnect Program to help expand broadband connection in underserved areas—consequently ensuring affordable, high-speed, high-quality Internet access. Internet service providers who receive these funds should be required to offer an affordable service plan to every consumer. Congress should also increase funding and improve upon programs that help expand broadband access for low-income households. For instance, the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program could allow households to have two connections (e.g., one mobile and one fixed broadband) and designate cable operators—key providers of home broadband—as “Eligible Telecommunications Carriers.” Granting this certification would allow cable operators to offer discounts on services to low-income customers.

Broadening the deployment of high-speed broadband has the potential for digitalization to help decarbonize the economy, with the internet being the backbone for this change. The application of digital technologies to physical equipment could enable a systems-based approach that can significantly reduce energy use and carbon emissions across the economy. Broadband expansion can provide U.S. farmers with precision agriculture techniques. Precision agriculture minimizes erosion from irrigation, lowers fuel consumption with a reduction in tractor operators, and reduces the use of fertilizer. 5G wireless network infrastructure can enable sensors, real-time monitoring and verification used for soil carbon sequestration, regenerative agricultural practices, and other precision advances in forestry. The expansion has the capacity to deliver carbon savings five times greater than the sector’s total emissions, about 2 percent, with a potential of almost 15 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. BP’s 2018 technology outlook forecasts that an advancement in digital technologies can lead to a reduced overall net electricity demand by more than 25 percent by 2050.

Funding through programs such as DOE’s State Energy Program can also be beneficial for the development and deployment of a digitally connected power grid, targeting rural areas, that is more efficient, resilient, and secure. Congress should appropriate revenues from wireless telecommunication installation leases on federal property into programs that directly address digital equity. Conversely, the growth of broadband infrastructure, network devices, and data storage has raised concerns about the potential increase in energy use (and related emissions) within the Information and Communication Technology sector (ICT). In 2015, the ICT sector made up about 1.4 percent of global emissions. Though internet traffic will increase with an expansion of broadband, energy consumption of data centers is expected to remain relatively flat due to efficiency improvement. In addition, technology companies are increasingly purchasing or generating renewable electricity, which could further limit emissions from the ICT sector.

The goal of limiting emissions as internet traffic increases will be achieved by enabling greater energy efficiency, transforming how electricity is generated and used, and increasing the electrification of buildings, transportation, and industry. 5G networks also provide also offer huge benefits to society while bringing greater efficiency to everyday life. A comprehensive broadband expansion should be part of any further economic recovery or infrastructure plan to move through Congress.

We will be taking a closer look on digitalization in an upcoming publication on the topic.