Why access to broadband should be a human right


Mike Bell sees high-speed internet connection as the linchpin of a thriving, equal-opportunity society.


Ask Mike Bell, Corning’s senior vice president and general manager of Optical Communications, what motivates him to come to work every morning, to lead the high-speed fiber broadband business he’s contributed to since 1991, and he’ll answer with his own question: “What could be more exciting than expanding the bandwidth of human potential?”  

Bell’s zeal reflects Corning’s mission to connect the unconnected to the transformational benefits only made possible by reliable, high-speed internet access.

To meet ever-growing demand, the company has invested more than $500 million in fiber and cable manufacturing since 2020. This expanded capacity helps ensure strong supply for internet service providers to make fiber connections available to all Americans, regardless of where they live.   

In this interview, Bell shares why his team is so committed to this vital pursuit.  

Since Corning invented the first low-loss optical fiber in 1970, more than 6 billion kilometers of fiber have been deployed globally. But there’s work to do: Only 19% of Americans are connected by fiber today.

Why should broadband access be a human right?

The pandemic’s massive, unplanned experiment proved that only those with high-speed internet could really participate in our society as it works today. It’s as critical as electricity. 

The 80% of Americans who don’t have access to fiber broadband got left behind. It’s not OK to let that digital divide persist, to accept having a “less than” population. 

What would equal access look like? 

We want every American to have a fiber-to-the-home broadband connection providing equal upload and download speeds, capable of bringing people together via seamless video. Equal upload and download speeds are important because increasingly we’re all uploading as much as we’re downloading – uploading videos to social media, downloading apps to our devices, and so on.  

Once you have a single fiber to your home, you’ll never need anything else. Only fiber provides the kind of future-proof bandwidth capacity that sets folks up for success for decades to come.

Who agrees with you? 

The U.S. government. We’ve seen bipartisan support for the “Internet for All” movement via the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 allocating $65 billion (about $200 per person in the U.S.) in new spending for high-speed internet. Of that, about $42 billion will go toward new infrastructure under the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program.

Mike Bell with U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo at Corning’s newest optical cable manufacturing facility in Hickory, North Carolina.

But what if families cannot afford internet service? 

President Biden recently pointed out the absolute necessity of affordable, reliable, high-speed internet service, calling it an essential utility like water or gas. Initiatives like the American Rescue Plan aim to get and keep low-income households connected, whether they’re living in cities or our vastly underserved rural areas.

Some critics say it’s too expensive and cumbersome to build fiber networks across rural America. 

Naysayers said the same thing when the Rural Electrification Act got passed in 1936. Imagine how backwards the country would be if we hadn’t pressed ahead with getting everyone connected to electricity? It’s the same with the internet right now.

You’re clearly passionate about this. 

I believe in equal opportunity, in making sure everyone has a chance to reach their full potential. 

Access to education is the single most transformational thing in American life. Learners with high-speed internet can avail themselves of all human knowledge, participate in classes anywhere on the globe, and unleash their gifts in ways unimaginable 25 years ago.  How much talent are we missing out on by not connecting everyone to those opportunities? 

As individuals grow their strengths, the community benefits, too. 

Absolutely. Broadband is an engine for economic growth and vitality. Employment opportunities open up. Market knowledge gets democratized. Entrepreneurs can transact globally as well as locally. All because people can fully take part.  

The Corning Fiber Broadband Technician program is helping train fiber deployment workers across America.

Look what happened in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Years ago, its leaders invested in fiber infrastructure, bringing broadband to virtually every home and business. 

According to a 10-year study, roughly 40% of new jobs created in the county could be attributed to having that fiber infrastructure. Billions of dollars of economic impact.  Chattanooga is now like the Silicon Valley of the southeast!  

And you know students there didn’t miss a beat during Covid. They stayed connected and learning, boding well for their and their city’s future. It’s just a tremendous virtuous cycle made possible by fiber. 

Could we expect better health outcomes as well? 

Telehealth services now enhance so many of our lives. With a high-speed connection, medical experts anywhere can meet with us, see and hear us, evaluate and treat us. You and I might experience that as a terrific convenience. 

But what if you’re in a farming community where the nearest hospital is an hour’s drive away? And specialists might not be available at all?  Broadband becomes a lifeline to essential services. 

We’re seeing a related phenomenon in eldercare. 

More seniors can now remain in their homes thanks to virtual monitoring and companion services. Video calls, medication apps, home security checks, and the like supply an extra layer of care to adults who need it but don’t require in-person supervision. Reduces worry for families while preserving valued autonomy. Should a situation arise, having a reliable connection ensures help can be summoned without delay. 

Connecting rural Americans to fiber broadband is a key priority for Corning and the U.S. government.

Seems like high-speed internet undergirds the very fundamentals of a high-quality 21st century life.

It does. And I’d be remiss if I left entertainment off that list. 

Why shouldn’t everyone be able to livestream fantastic concerts, or the latest blockbuster movie, or dive into a global community of gamers? 

And opportunities to enjoy, learn, and create are only going to expand with the growth of generative AI tools and augmented reality applications

We’re headed into an era beyond watching how-to YouTube videos. We’re going to see virtual worlds and instructional elements put right into our real-world environment. Making use of that capability requires a high-speed connection. 

You don’t want anyone to miss out. 

All of us miss out when anyone remains unconnected. But, my goodness, imagine how we can move the world forward when we all share that connected pathway toward a better version of ourselves. 

The job’s not yet done, but it’s 100% worth doing. 


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