In the weeks and months to come, a growing number of US citizens are going to be forced to work from home in a bid to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. In the process they’re going to run face-first into a US broadband market that has consistently failed to provide quality, affordable broadband to those who need it most.
In a Senate appropriations hearing this morning, several FCC Commissioners warned that the coronavirus will soon shine a very bright light on America’s stubborn “digital divide.”
“With social distancing and even quarantine being required, as they may soon be in many American communities, broadband connections will become even more vital,” FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks told hearing attendees.
Starks recommended that the FCC expedite approval of experimental licenses to expand existing wireless networks, pressure carriers to deliver cell towers on wheels (cows) to the hardest hit US communities, and launch a “connectivity and economic stimulus” plan to help speed up broadband deployment to the hardest hit US communities.
“Everyone in the telecommunications sector must step up,” he added. “The time is now. Americans are going to need broadband in their homes—to help them telework to keep the economy strong; to help them understand medical information, and potentially connect with medical care via telemedicine; and to help our youngest learners continue to grow.”
It’s easier said than done.
In Congressional testimony earlier this year, former FCC lawyer Gigi Sohn estimated that some 141 million people in the US lack access to fixed broadband at speeds of 25 Mbps, the FCC’s base definition of broadband. A recent study indicated that roughly 42 million Americans have no access to either fixed or wireless broadband whatsoever, nearly double FCC estimates.
A lack of competition means US consumers pay some of the highest rates for broadband in the developed world. It also means that US internet service providers (ISPs) have very little incentive to shore up terrible customer service, expand broadband into rural markets, or avoid bad behavior like spurious surcharges or arbitrary broadband usage caps.
It’s a problem that’s not exclusive to rural areas. In New York City, 29 percent of households don’t have broadband, and 46 percent of families living below the poverty line don’t have service—usually due to high prices. It’s worse in less affluent cities and minority neighborhoods long neglected when it comes to broadband upgrades.
As the US looks to reduce the rate and spread of COVID-19 (flattening the curve, as infectious disease experts call it) a growing number of schools and businesses will urge students and workers to telecommute. One Seattle school district has shuttered classrooms for the next two weeks, forcing some 23,500 students to go online.
A United Nations report last week indicated that some 300 million schoolchildren are missing class worldwide as a result of the outbreak. 22 countries have begun closing schools as they try to manage the spread of the disease.
As US cities begin to follow suit over the next few weeks, American students are going to get a crash course in the availability and affordability problems that have long plagued US broadband, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel told hearing attendees.
"Now is absolutely the time for the FCC to talk about the coronavirus disruption," she said. "We are going to expose some really hard truths about the scope of the digital divide."
Last week, Washington Senator Maria Cantwell wrote a letter to FCC boss Ajit Pai, urging drastic action to prepare for what’s coming.
“I request that the FCC consider whether temporary measures using its authority under section 254 of the Communications Act of 1934 could be used to facilitate at-home connectivity for students to keep up in class should remote schoolwork become necessary due to COVID-19 closures,” she wrote.
Rosenworcel and Starks both told Congress that Pai should reverse his efforts to neuter low-income broadband programs like Lifeline, and instead expand them to help deliver mobile hotspots to impacted students. That could prove particularly important if libraries—often the only hope of connectivity for many low income Americans—also decide to close their doors.
Even then, it’s hard to quickly fix a decades-old broadband affordability and availability problem caused by feckless regulators, Congressional corruption, and monopoly domination of a broken telecom market. For many students and US residents caught in the wake of this dysfunction, the check for our collective apathy is about to come due.