The past month has taught us that the internet is the one indispensable tool Americans have amidst this crisis. Families are now depending on broadband internet connections for remote health diagnostics, for telework, for remote learning, to obtain public service announcements from government, to buy needed goods — even to participate in the Census. As Congress considers legislation to address the ongoing coronavirus crisis, it is critical they include measures to ensure that every American has affordable access to that lifeline.
As I write this, at least 20 million American households are currently without home access to broadband internet, primarily because they can’t afford it. These are the families on the wrong side of the digital divide, the most vulnerable people in our society. Disproportionately they are older, poorer, and sicker than the “average” American.
The Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC’s) Lifeline program provides subsidized funding for mobile devices and internet connectivity. However, that Lifeline subsidy is less than ten dollars and applies only to one device per home. Worse, we do not have any meaningful national standards to determine the level of speed Lifeline broadband subscribers will receive, and we are forced to wrestle with an ineffective, patchwork, underutilized approach to ensuring underserved Americans are connected to the internet.
Instead, too many low-income Americans are forced to rely on the charitable largesse of major internet providers, who provide bare bones, no-frills connectivity that often doesn’t even meet the FCC’s often-derided minimum standards for broadband speeds. We are subjecting our most vulnerable populations to what could be labeled “trickle-down technology.”
Low-cost corporate broadband offerings available today in various regions of the country vary from barely acceptable to laughably inadequate. In some communities or cities, gigabit networks are offered to some families, while families on Lifeline are offered speeds that range from 1/80th to 1/100th of the speeds afforded to their more affluent neighbors. It’s not surprising that many families opt not to connect to these, perhaps well intentioned, but meager and substantially insufficient programs.
Right now, Detroit schools are closed, and 60 percent of Detroit public school students don’t have access to broadband.
The Governor of New York has advised people to stay home and only go out for essential purposes, but in New York City alone, there are as many people without broadband as there are residents of Houston, Texas, according to a recent study.
Elderly Americans, over 65 years of age, the ones who absolutely must say home, are two to three times more likely to lack a broadband connection than other Americans.
We can and must do better.
The FCC should be applauded for many immediate actions it has taken or is considering, including providing Wi-Fi hotspots to students and encouraging internet providers to open up their Wi-Fi networks.
Encouraging internet providers not to disconnect subscribers is also a sound, temporary measure that will provide some help in the near term.
It is imperative that Congress do more.
It should devise a long-term solution to our continuing digital divide, once and for all. Congress must ensure adequate long-term funding and, even more importantly, must modernize broadband by directing the FCC to, at a minimum:
- Define and require a meaningful level of Lifeline broadband service;
- Assure an adequate funding mechanism for Lifeline;
- Permit subscribing households to receive Lifeline funding for more than one device by decoupling funding for Lifeline broadband from funding for mobile phones or other devices;
- Require the Federal Communications Commission to provide annual reports on the success of the Lifeline program in increasing broadband subscribership
This crisis will end. But it is painfully clear that the digital divide will not improve significantly until Congress takes decisive action.
The crisis today demonstrates conclusively that Americans depend on broadband to live their lives. It is time for Congress to make sure that is a lifeline for all Americans.
Larry Irving is a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce and is a member of the Internet Hall of Fame for his work identifying and addressing the “Digital Divide”