More than 21 million Americans lack a reliable internet connection, according to the Federal Communications Commission. And that might be a low estimate. One watchdog group thinks the real number is closer to 42 million.

These people were already at a disadvantage prior to COVID-19, but the pandemic made their situation untenable. Without an internet connection, children couldn’t attend school virtually. Parents couldn’t work remotely — or search for new opportunities online if they lost their jobs.

President Biden pledged billions of dollars in his new infrastructure package to help expand broadband. That’s a welcome commitment, but merely laying more fiber won’t fully solve the problem. Even in places where high-speed internet connections are available, many Americans can’t afford them.

In 21st century America, internet access is as essential as electricity and running water. It’s time to make broadband accessible and affordable to everyone, by treating internet like an essential utility rather than a luxury good.

Many low-income Americans, especially in rural areas, either have unreliable internet or none at all. Internet connection speeds are 40 percent slower in poor parts of the country. Just 65 percent of households in rural counties subscribe to the internet, compared to 78 percent nationwide.

This lack of broadband makes it nearly impossible for Americans to fully participate in our 21st-century economy and society.

That’s why, for months, many children in West Virginia — where up to 50 percent of public-school students don’t have home internet connections — traveled long distances to relatives’ houses or school parking lots to access Wi-Fi and attend virtual classes.

When internet connections were unavailable, or simply too expensive, families faced agonizing choices — such as whether to pay the rent, the internet bill, or put food on the table.

Struggling Americans made heroic sacrifices — but they shouldn’t have had to. Fast and reliable home internet would be far more affordable if we simply changed how people pay for broadband.

Currently, almost all subscribers pay an expensive flat fee for access. The median price is $66 per month, but in some places, can reach up to nearly $200.

In return, a user gets effectively unlimited data, allowing them to perform necessary tasks like sending work emails and submitting homework assignments, as well as fun — though not essential — data-intensive activities like streaming Netflix and playing video games.

Contrast this expensive, flat-fee payment model with the consumption-based payment model for vital utilities like water or electricity.

Charging consumers based on their consumption might sound more annoying, but it actually empowers them to save money. If people want to lower their winter heating bill, they can set the thermostat to 68 degrees instead of 72. If they want to slash their water bill, they can take faster showers or water lawns and gardens less.

If Americans could similarly pay only for the internet they use, they’d be able to save bundles. Low-income families could have reliable, high-speed connections for just a few bucks a week.

And for Americans at or below the poverty line, the government could directly subsidize broadband access, just as it already helps vulnerable families with their electricity bills.

Fast home internet is necessary to work, learn, play, and live in the 21st century. We won’t have a just society until it is accessible — and affordable — to all.

Brent Messenger is vice president of public policy & community engagement at Fiverr.

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