Last week, the New York Times reported that US Internet speeds have fallen far behind those of other developed nations, ranking 25th internationally, after South Korea and even Romania.

America began as a crucial player in the digital age, but despite pioneering much of the original technology, its competitive edge has dulled in recent years, bringing the nation from superpower to mere sidekick faster than a speeding bullet. At first glance, our fall from grace as a leading technological power seems like a problem with the tech sector itself. But the issue is as much social construction as technical obstruction. A decade-long decline in economic security brought with it a downward spiral in standards and progress. Slow Internet speeds may not seem commensurate with failing public schools, decreased government funding for health and wellness services, high unemployment rates and the credit crisis, but they are all nails in the same coffin: America’s dwindling ability to provide opportunity for its citizens. In the land of the free, there can be no equal opportunity without equal access.

Under the Communications Act of 1996, the Internet was qualified as a form of telecommunications, protecting it as nondiscriminatory and central to economic growth and progress. That legislation also empowered the F.C.C. to regulate service and impede discriminatory practices by ISPs. When the Bush administration deregulated high-speed Internet providers in 2002, cable providers were no longer required to open up their lines to competition. As a direct result, high-speed cable Internet prices continued to rise without check from the government or rival service organizations, and technological innovation in the sector slowed considerably. And so, for nearly a decade, there has been no incentive for ISPs to increase Internet connection speed. Consumers must either pay for sub-par services or go without.

Even while many Americans experience slow service, some – mostly rural, low-density populations – have none at all. There is little financial incentive for an ISP to bring access to people living in rural regions where just a handful of houses may exist, and no municipality can currently mandate that they must. Currently, little more than a third of American households have high-speed Internet, either due to lack of infrastructure or affordability. But across the US, slowly but surely, the Internet has come to replace the television and broadcast industries as a primary mode of communication; as the trend continues, people without home Internet will be left without an outlet. In 2010, the F.C.C. proposed a National Broadband Plan to bring service to people living in sparsely populated zones, recommending that the federal government subsidize cable companies to open up new lines to these households. The plan would aim billions of dollars at building connections in under-served areas, and though the F.C.C. intends the program to pay for itself, current economic conditions make justifying the overhead improbable in the relative future.

Despite the bleak prognosis for the present, America is capable of ascending back into the top 10 countries with the fastest Internet speeds. The F.C.C. can take back its ability to protect American consumers by first reclassifying cable companies as telecommunications services, thereby allowing the regulation of prices and opening cable line access. Additionally, the federal government could follow in the footsteps of South Korea and supplement the cost of cable Internet, bringing affordable access to consumers who cannot afford to pay for services.

Internet access has truly become a form of basic communication to which all Americans are entitled, and the inability to access high-speed services places our country at an international disadvantage. An investment in the technology to educate all Americans is an investment in our nation’s future ability to compete on a global front.