Wednesday, March 25, 2020
In a way, Ajit Pai is the chief of dial tone in the U.S., but in a statement released March 24, he proves that he's tone-deaf. In a self-congratulatory release, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Pai lists the ways his agency—and the telecommunications and media industries the FCC oversees—have dealt with the coronavirus pandemic. He writes: "It might be hard to find hand sanitizer and toilet paper, but I’m happy to report that Internet access is proving to be one of the most valuable non-medical commodities right now." For someone who's made closing the digital divide the top priority of his chairmanship, his words ring hollow.
At least 175 million people in 17 states, 26 counties and 10 cities are being urged to stay home in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus and save lives. For many of us, a broadband connection means kids can continue to learn, parents can continue to work, and we can stay connected to friends and family.
But over 20 million Americans don't have broadband in their home.
Purdue researchers looked at how America’s more than 3,000 counties are able to implement remote work and found that there's likely to be problems in nearly 40% of counties—in no small part because of limited digital connectivity.
Rural communities with poor, little or no broadband Internet access are stuck in digital deserts, unable to connect. Tim Marema, the editor of The Daily Yonder, says lack of access in places like Appalachia makes it tougher to come up with solutions during the outbreak. And even in districts around the country with broadband service available, school children lack educational devices in the home.
Any transition to digital learning will be especially challenging within lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Broadband adoption rates in Black households lag behind White households by 6.8%; Latino or Hispanic households lag 3.4%. Further, when Black and Latino or Hispanic households do have in-home broadband, they’re more likely than white households to rely only on mobile connections.
In San Antonio, Spectrum won't connect the Jeffries family because of an outstanding balance. Schools there, under a state directive, now must provide “remote instruction” and many will start Monday. But the Jeffries kids will not be able to participate.
“It shouldn’t take a pandemic for America to take seriously the injustice of 12 million kids without access to internet at home," said Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO). "If we are serious about expanding opportunity and building an economy for all, one of our first priorities needs to be closing the digital divide and ensuring that every child has access at home to reliable, high-speed broadband.”
But even for the kids that are connected and do have devices, America's digital divide impacts them, too. Many U.S. public school students will find that the work they do while at home is actually optional. It won’t be graded and it won’t count. “It’s an equity issue. If you can’t guarantee all your students have online access, nothing’s graded,” said Tim Robinson, a spokesman in Seattle Public Schools in Washington. As a result, millions of schoolchildren risk missing weeks of school.
Pai's statement has me scratching my head. He asked Congress for $2 billion to rip out and replace existing broadband infrastructure—and no money to better identify where broadband is available and where it isn't. This is an important moment in time when we should be able to afford more broadband connections and better broadband data.
As hard as things are right now for all of us, think how much worse it is for people disconnected from e-commerce, streaming entertainment, video conferencing, telework, telehealth, and distance learning.
Broadband access was essential before the coronavirus outbreak. High-speed Internet access is widely recognized as a necessity for full participation in today’s society. But Chairman Pai has repeatedly ruled that broadband is being deployed in a timely fashion.
Although Pai's statement uses the word "act" nine times, ironically, he proposes no new action.
The coronavirus pandemic isn’t making broadband essential—it’s exposing that it always was and turning up the urgency of connecting everyone now.
We need Ajit Pai to hear that.
Kevin Taglang is the Executive Editor at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.
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.
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