Broadband Solutions to Pandemic Problems

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, February 19, 2021

Weekly Digest

Broadband Solutions to Pandemic Problems

 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of February 15-19, 2021

Kevin Taglang

On February 17, the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a hearing on COVID-19's impact on the digital divide and the homework gap. There was bipartisan agreement on the importance of expanding broadband access. Democrats focused more on affordability issues, especially during the pandemic, as well as improving data on where broadband is available and where it isn't. Republicans mostly extolled deregulation as a way to encourage rural broadband deployment and the need to streamline wireless infrastructure to facilitate buildout of the next generation of wireless, 5G. A fun time was had by all.

In a pre-hearing memorandum, the subcommittee's staff noted how the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequities in education and public access to critically important resources, such as telehealth and career services. These problems are not isolated to rural areas but exist all across the country in all population densities. While a higher share of rural households lacks a broadband subscription compared to the share of urban ones, by total numbers, three times as many non-subscribing households are located in non-rural areas. 

The cost of monthly service remains a major factor in the number of American households without home internet. Even prior to the pandemic and the resulting economic downturn, at least six million unconnected households did not have internet access because it is too expensive. Testimony at the hearing actually pegs that number at 77 million people. As noted in Benton Institute for Broadband & Society research, surveys of low-income families in communities across the country suggest that internet service offered at $10-15 per month would be affordable. 

Congress is considering creating a $7.6 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund to enable eligible schools and libraries to, among other things, provide connected devices, internet service, and hotspots to students and teachers for internet use at home, facilitating both distance learning while schools are closed and online homework when students return to their physical classrooms. This is in addition to COVID-relief provisions adopted by Congress in March and December 2020. In particular, December's Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 requires the Federal Communications Commission to create the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program by the end of this month. The program will provide discounted broadband service to low-income households and those that have experienced substantial income loss since the outbreak of COVID-19. 

In their opening remarks, full Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D-PA) stressed that achieving connectivity for all Americans means investing in both deployment of rural broadband networks and affordability everywhere. Chairman Doyle said, "While the Emergency Broadband Benefit is temporary, I sincerely hope we can work together to find permanent solutions to ensuring that broadband service is available and affordable to all." 

Four witnesses testified before the subcommittee via Zoom:

  • Free Press Action Vice President of Policy and General Counsel, Matthew F. Wood,
  • Dr. Tiffany Anderson, the Superintendent of Topeka Public Schools,
  • Communications Workers of America President Christopher M. Shelton, and
  • Jonathan Adelstein, the President and CEO of the Wireless Infrastructure Association. (Adelstein was an FCC commissioner from 2002 to 2009.)

Matt Wood said that the largest part of the complex digital divide is not people who have no access to broadband options in rural and other hard-to-reach areas. It is people who do have access to broadband today but cannot afford to purchase it or choose not to adopt it. This affordability divide is built on income inequality, with people in lower-income brackets less likely to be connected at all—or if they do have a home internet connection, more likely to have a less adequate plan or mobile service alone instead of wired or other types of “fixed” broadband service. Free Press published research in 2016 that found that systemic racism plays a staggeringly large role in perpetuating the digital divide.

Broadband has been a pandemic-proof business, in peak demand, with ISP revenues rising and subscriber rolls growing. During the pandemic, Wood noted, broadband providers have been making record profits – while hiking prices and imposing caps on the amounts of data consumers can exchange over their service. Prices are rising for entry-level broadband tiers, too. Rates for lower-priced standalone broadband are up 20 percent in five years, more than double the rate of inflation, and up 50 percent in some cities. The solution, Wood suggested, is competition policy and restoring FCC authority over broadband services.

Dr. Anderson testified about the efforts Topeka's schools have made to keep educating students during the pandemic including providing Wi-Fi access via school buses, Topeka libraries, and other community partners. She said, "Free public education provided books, pencils, and paper many years ago that students took home and utilized. Now, our device is our textbook, our electronic tools such as the mouse are the pencils and for students who have special education needs, their voice is often through the assistive technology that is heavily dependent on adequate WiFi." Dr. Anderson called for closing today's online learning divide through a temporary emergency expansion of the E-rate. "Education is a basic civil right," she stressed, "and to allow our scholars to access this right, funding resources supporting E-rate and broadband services are essential."

"Major telecom companies’ lack of investment has made the digital divide worse," said CWA's Shelton. "Major broadband providers, both telecom and cable, have chosen not to build their networks to areas they deem less profitable, and not to upgrade many existing customers left behind by outdated technology." He suggested that competition alone is not the answer to closing the digital divide and noted that the choices that private companies have made have served to deepen racial and economic inequality. "[G]overnment plays a crucial role in establishing regulations and oversight that ensure all households have access to affordable, high-quality essential services – whether it be electricity, water, or communication," Shelton said. 

Shelton noted CWA's support for investment in rural broadband deployment, the new Emergency Broadband Benefit Program being developed at the FCC, and the E-rate program. He also called for strengthening the FCC’s Lifeline program, which discounts services for low-income households, and reforming the FCC's Universal Service Fund so it rests on a more secure funding base. 

Representing the companies that build, develop, own, and operate the nation’s wireless facilities, Adelstein focused on expediting broadband deployment and "winning the race to 5G." He voiced support for the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, a bill the House passed in 2020 that would invest billions in deploying broadband networks. Adelstein stressed that broadband investment results in job creation, putting people to work in good-paying jobs that can build careers and our economy. He asked Congress to also invest in registered apprenticeships and evidence-based job training and support.

Many of the questions the Republican members of the subcommittee had were directed to Adelstein, apparently in an attempt to solicit answers about the importance of deregulation and streamlining buildout. Just prior to the hearing, Republicans had unveiled the Boosting Broadband Connectivity Agenda, a package of 28 bills focused mainly on deregulation of the broadband industry and streamlining regulatory reviews of infrastructure proposals, including exempting projects from environmental and historical preservation reviews. 

Democrats' questions focused more on how to successfully implement the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. The panel voiced support for the new program because it will potentially address affordability issues for so many households. Getting the word out to low-income people and minimizing eligibility verification burdens on participants will be key to the program's success, however.

There was also a great deal of support for collecting better broadband deployment data and using that data to guide decisions about large investments in broadband deployment as envisioned by House legislation passed in 2020. 

The only way to improve broadband deployment is getting the companies that know how to do it to move forward. And the only way that’s going to happen is with federal money used to help companies get this done. It’s obvious that deregulation is not doing the trick, because if it was, we wouldn’t be having this meeting. Companies are taking money and abandoning copper networks, said Shelton. Wood echoed this saying deregulation is not enough; what's needed is competition and support for the people who are most in need.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

Feb 23  —  Lifeline and Emergency Broadband Benefit Program Webinar for Service Providers (USAC)

Feb 23  —  Closing the Digital Divide (AT&T)

Feb 24  —  Fanning the Flames: Disinformation and Extremism in the Media

Feb 25  —  Build Back Better: Digital Equity in the Biden-Harris Administration (Michelson 20MM Foundation)

Feb 25  —  If Congress Makes Platforms More Liable for User Speech, What Will Change? (ITIF)

Feb 25  —  The National Strategy To Secure 5G Industry Listening (NTIA)

Feb 26  —  RDOF's Impact on Anchor Institutions (Schools Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition)

Mar 2  —   Lifeline and Emergency Broadband Benefit Program Webinar for Service Providers (USAC)

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

© Benton Institute for Broadband & Society 2021. Redistribution of this email publication - both internally and externally - is encouraged if it includes this copyright statement.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
727 Chicago Avenue
Evanston, IL 60202
headlines AT benton DOT org

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Broadband Delivers Opportunities and Strengthens Communities

By Kevin Taglang.