Classrooms are deserted and parents are grappling with exceptional challenges under the nationwide lockdown. None face a greater disadvantage, however, than those living in broadband dead zones. In poor and rural areas, many parents are driving their kids every day to the first place they can find with good wifi. The destinations for some students is often the same school and library parking lots being used by their teachers.
Images of families scrounging for internet have become useful symbols in discussing the unique struggles of people in marginalized communities where working from home is virtually impossible. Ordinary but essential tasks such as grading homework or filing for unemployment are difficult in the best of time in places where reliable home internet is still considered a luxury.
Top Democrats on Thursday announced a plan to roll out—as part of the next coronavirus package—a broad range of broadband-based initiatives, including an $80 billion package going toward expansion over the next five years. Among other goals, it aims to fund putting wifi on school buses where long rides are common; deploy mobile hotspots to students without internet at home; and establish grants to help states “close gaps in broadband adoption and digital skills.”
“As we see millions of our fellow Americans unable to telework, learn remotely, or access tele-health because they lack broadband, now is the time to act,” said House Majority Whip James Clyburn, chair of the rural broadband task force behind the plan.
Standing alongside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at a press conference Thursday morning, Clyburn said that in some areas of central and eastern South Carolina—his district—up to 60 percent of children don’t have broadband access. As many experts have forecast another round of the virus this winter, he wondered, what will become of students who miss another year of school?
“Some of them will fall behind for a second year. I happen to have started my professional career as a public school teacher, and I can tell you what happens if a child falls two years behind,” he said. “That child will never graduate high school.”
Pelosi followed by acknowledging “urban deserts” in major cities where broadband remains inaccessible to students, including in her own state of California and New York City. The latter began distributing some 300,000 devices to students last month as plans for remote learning took shape. According to the New York Times, however, some 114,000 homeless students (to whom distribution is reportedly being prioritized) reside in shelters and other temporary homes where internet is rarely, if ever, available,
Pelosi emphasized the Democrats’ plan guarantees local governments the power to establish their own public-private partnerships. It also includes $5 billion earmarked for low-interest loans toward broadband development. It further aims to incentivize companies to build only infrastructure that can be used by multiple internet providers; an effort to promote competition and “provide more options to consumers,” the House members said.
An announcement following the briefing described other initiatives, as well. One requires the Federal Communications Commission to collect and make freely available data on the cost of broadband service through the country. Another establishes an “Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth” under an existing Commerce Department office that advises the president on telecommunications policy. Data amassed by the FCC would help inform a study by the office that would aim, in part, to gauge the feasibility of additional low-income subsidies.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who’s led the agency since 2017, touted his efforts to expand rural broadband access, saying it had more than tripled between 2016 and 2018. “Under my leadership, the FCC’s top priority is to close the digital divide, and I’m proud of the progress that we have made,” he said. But the FCC’s data is problematic, to say the least. For years, it’s allowed internet providers to misrepresent how many households they are actually serving—bloated statistics that can and have influenced agency decisions.
Several members of the broadband task force emphasized the Democratic plan is not only meant to address the immediate needs of families without reliable internet access, but it could play a key role in re-energizing America’s flailing economy.
“This proposal will create good paying jobs and guarantee that no community is left behind in the digital economy,” said Rep. Frank Pallone, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Rep. Dave Loebsack said economic development in his state of Iowa depends “in large part” on access to high-speed broadband. “Once the transmission of COVID-19 has slowed between people, to ensure a full economic recovery and close the ‘broadband gap,’ getting broadband to those who don’t have it must be a top priority,” he said.
“This pandemic makes it clearer than ever that high-speed broadband is a basic necessity,” added Rep. Mark Pocan, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee. “As we have been forced to transition to a remote lifestyle where education, work and healthcare is often dependent on access to internet, that access should not be threatened by your socioeconomic status or your geographic location.”
“It’s time Congress take action to ensure everyone remains connected during and after this pandemic,” he said.