The Federal Communications Commission has already signed up 2.3 million households for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which was designed to help low-income users with affordable internet access during the pandemic. But while the agency is heralding these numbers as a success, the program appears to be plagued by ongoing issues that are causing some internet service providers to block eligible Americans from accessing up to $50 a month off of their internet bills.
Spectrum is forcing customers who are eligible for a new federal subsidy for internet service to opt into full-price plans once the subsidy runs out. The policy appears to skirt rules set forth by the Federal Communications Commission, which is running the Emergency Broadband Benefit program. The $3.2 billion emergency broadband benefit, which launched earlier this month, gives people up to $50 off of their monthly internet bill. The stopgap funding was allocated in response to the pandemic and is expected to run out within the year.
Comcast, Charter, AT&T and their respective industry associations have spent years beating back municipal broadband networks in states across the country, lobbying for laws that prohibit such networks and arguing that government-funded broadband puts the thumb on the scale of competition.
The COVID crisis has highlighted both the severity of the so-called "homework gap" and the shortcomings of early remedies like mobile hotspots and even low-cost home broadband plans. Now, more than a year into the pandemic, schools and cities across the country are increasingly testing novel ways to get students connected, not just for the duration of the pandemic, but for the long term.
Here are the top reforms and nominations that could stand a chance in the new Congress assuming — as now seems likely — Democrats control both chambers and the White House.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, California estimated that 1 million of its 6.2 million school kids didn't have the equipment they needed for virtual learning, prompting leaders from across the tech industry to immediately open their wallets to help. But six months later, with school back in session, only a fraction of the devices those contributions were supposed to purchase are actually in students' hands. Amassing these donations, it turns out, was the easy part.
A chief critic of the tech industry's attempts to track coronavirus patients went to work and held meetings with employees after his doctor directed him to take a test for COVID-19 that subsequently came back positive. Marc Rotenberg, the president and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, acknowledged in a memo to his staff and his board that he should have quarantined and alerted his staff that he was taking a coronavirus test on March 9, instead of continuing to work alongside them for two days.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen Kamala Harris (D-CA) is introducing the Digital Service Act of 2019 on March 14 that would give state and local governments access to a pool of $15 million a year in grant funding, which they could use to set up tech teams and overhaul the often outdated tools and websites their constituents use every day. The bill is modeled after the United States Digital Service, an elite team of geeks inside the White House working on ways to make federal government technology less clunky and confusing—and maybe even good.
Washington spent the better part of 2018 talking tough to tech companies and threatening a crackdown on the wanton collection, dissemination, and monetization of personal data. But all of that was just prelude. The real privacy showdown is slated for 2019.
Lobbying groups and trade associations, including several representing the tech industry, are pushing for a litany of deep changes to California's new data protection law that they say would make the law easier to implement before it goes into effect in January 2020. But privacy advocates worry that pressure from powerful businesses could end up gutting the law completely. "This is their job: to try to make this thing absolutely meaningless.