Connectivity in the Time of COVID

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, January 8, 2021

Weekly Digest

Connectivity in the Time of COVID

The Most Important Digital Divide Stories in 2020

 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 January 4-8, 2020

Robbie McBeath

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the necessity of broadband became incontrovertible. Attending school, working from home, visiting a doctor, and accessing government services all relied on reliable broadband connections. For many, bridging the digital divide emerged as an even-more-urgent priority. We’ve tracked the stories that best explain the complexities of the digital divide and the crucial policy responses. Here’s our list:

American without broadband struggle in a stuck-at-home nation


10. The FCC Creates the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund

FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Auction Was Supposed to Significantly Reduce America’s Rural Broadband Gap | Ziggy Rivkin-Fish | Benton Institute

In the early months of 2020, the Federal Communications Commission finalized the framework for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the agency’s revamped effort to extend the reach of broadband networks deeper into rural America. The FCC’s own research estimates that $80 billion is needed to bring broadband everywhere in the U.S., so the $20.4 billion fund represents a significant — although likely insufficient — step in closing the digital divide over the next decade. 

In December, the FCC announced the winning bids to deploy networks with the support of the new fund. But immediately, many wondered if the money will be well spent and whether providers will be able to deliver on their promises to build high-performance networks. 

CTC Technology & Energy’s Ziggy Rivkin-Fish concluded:

At worst, the auction outcome could result in enormous opportunity costs, with a significant share of U.S. residents precluded from getting fast, future-proof broadband solutions. At best, it could mean that many of those same citizens find themselves with a viable alternative to their current limited options—including, in many areas, short-term fixed-wireless solutions that offer inconsistent coverage and speeds, or no solution at all.

See Also: What is the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund? | Benton Institute; CTC’s new tool for analyzing the results; and Part I, Part II, and Part III of Free Press analysis.

9. The Cost of Broadband is Too Damn High

The Cost of Connectivity 2020 | Beck Chao, Claire Park | New America

New America’s Open Technology Institute released its most extensive Cost of Connectivity report, finding further evidence that “consumers in the United States pay more on average for monthly internet service than consumers abroad—especially for higher speed tiers.” OTI's research reiterates what Benton Senior Fellow Jonathan Sallet has been hearing from broadband experts across America: too many U.S. households are served by only one or two broadband internet access service providers, effectively locking consumers into monopoly or duopoly markets.

“Many consumers may struggle to determine total cost due to poor transparency, highly-complex pricing structures, and confusing itemized billing,” OTI found. “In addition, the high average cost of internet service is unaffordable for many U.S. consumers, contributing to a longstanding digital divide that disproportionately affects low-income households and Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities.”

OTI illustrates the cost disparities between U.S. cities and cities across the globe and offers timely and achievable policy recommendations to improve affordability and access. In a year wracked by the COVID-19 pandemic, the authors wrote, “There has never been a greater need for policies that promote competition, increase billing transparency, and make internet service more affordable for more people.”

See Also: The Cost of Connectivity in the Navajo Nation (New America)

8. The Year-Long Battle in Congress to Extend Broadband’s Reach

Benton’s Weekly Digest | Kevin Taglang | Benton Institute for Broadband & Society: How Does the CARES Act Connect Us? | Broadband HEROES | With Broadband on the Senate's Plate, Will the U.S. Get Served? | Republican HEALS Would Rip and Replace Broadband | Do We Still Have Broadband HEROES? | Charlie, Lucy, Football | Creating (Finally) an Emergency Broadband Benefit

Understandably, when the pandemic forced people to shelter in place and produced a historic economic downturn, many looked to Congress to help ensure people could get and stay connected. Benton Institute Executive Editor Kevin Taglang chronicled the twists and turns in seven Weekly Digests [Subscribe]. In short, Congress passed the CARES Act in March and the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021 at the very end of the year, but many of the more ambitious broadband infrastructure support measures remained on the cutting room floor. 

“Universal broadband will be costly, but shelter-in-place orders have demonstrated that it is even more costly to leave so many Americans behind.”
— New York Times Editorial

In addition to a variety of broadband infrastructure and grant programs, the Appropriations Act includes $3.2 billion for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, aimed at connecting low-income households, especially households with school-aged children, to broadband networks at affordable rates. 

See Also: NDIA Releases COVID Relief Bill Overview

7. States Step Up

States Tap Federal CARES Act to Expand Broadband | Kathryn de Wit | Pew Charitable Trusts

How have states used CARES Act money to respond to the digital divide? “States’ efforts to expand connectivity using these federal resources have focused on four specific needs: increasing access to online learning for K-12 and postsecondary students, supporting telehealth services, deploying more public Wi-Fi access points, and investing in residential broadband infrastructure, especially in rural and underserved areas,” Pew Charitable Trusts’ Kathryn de Wit wrote.

But she also noted that more long-term solutions are in order. “Although immediate federal relief funds had enabled some states to tackle near-term challenges and temporarily expand internet service, addressing these inequities ultimately demands long-term solutions—investment, coordination, planning, and oversight—to provide more Americans with reliable broadband access in their homes.”

See Also:​ Illinois Addresses the Digital Divide | Kevin Taglang | Benton Institute [Sign up for Illinois Broadband Connections, the biweekly newsletter covering Illinois broadband news]

6. How Did the Internet Hold Up?

Our Networks Are More Vital Than Ever. The FCC Owes Us Updates. | Jonathan Sallet | Undark

In the early days of the pandemic, a big question on many people’s minds was: Will the internet be able to hold up to new demands? 

The answers were mixed. Republican members of the FCC touted the resilience of networks, claiming the regulatory environment in the U.S. has enabled Internet providers to invest heavily in their networks. Others, such as M-Lab cofounder Sascha Meinrath, claimed “stunning loss of connectivity speeds to people’s homes.” OpenVault noted the number of broadband “power users” — people who use 1TB or more per month—doubled over the past year, which means broadband providers, with their usage-based billing and data caps, saw a boost in revenue.

Benton Senior Fellow Jonathan Sallet wrote an op-ed calling for the FCC to issue a weekly broadband status report, “updating America on what is working about our broadband networks and what, if anything, is not.” That did not happen. In fact, there was never an official release from the FCC on network performance during the pandemic.

See Also:

Surging Traffic Is Slowing Down Our Internet | Cecilia Kang, Davey Alba, Adam Satariano | New York Times
Decoding the Digital Divide | Jana Iyengar, Artur Bergman | Fastly
The Coronavirus Pandemic is Breaking the Internet | Sascha Meinrath | The Hill
How Covid-19 Changed Americans’ Internet Habits | Lillian Rizzo, Sawyer Click | Wall Street Journal
Broadband power users explode, making data caps more profitable for ISPs | Jon Brodkin | ars technica

5. Parking Lot Wi-Fi is Not a Solution

Parking Lots Have Become a Digital Lifeline | Cecilia Kang | New York Times
Doing Schoolwork in the Parking Lot Is Not a Solution | Editorial Board | New York Times 

Students Use Taco Bell Free Wi-Fi
An image that went viral of two students
using a Taco Bell's free Wi-Fi to access their coursework

As schools scrambled to try to meet the needs of virtual learning, the only option for broadband access for many parents and students was to sit in a parking lot and use a school or library’s Wi-Fi. There was no shortage of “Parking Lot Wi-Fi” stories, painting a bleak picture of the digital divide across America.

Some school districts distributed Wi-Fi hot spots and laptops to needy students. Francine Hernandez drove to a Tucson parking lot with her 14-year-old daughter every day for nearly a month to access Wi-Fi beamed from yellow district school buses. She said the family had lost service after her husband lost his job, making this the best alternative.

“It was the only way she could finish her homework,” said Ms. Hernandez. She said she sat in the car with her daughter for three hours at a stretch until the buses left before lunch.

See Also: While More Americans Rely on Parking Lot Wi-Fi, Many Public Libraries Do Not Have Adequate Broadband | Colin Rhinesmith, Jo Dutilloy, Susan Kennedy | Benton Institute

4. Broadband’s Role in Building a Just Society

Broadband Access Is A Civil Right We Can’t Afford To Lose—But Many Can’t Afford To Have | Rev. Al Sharpton, FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, Vanita Gupta, Marc Morial, Maurita Coley | Essence

June was a tumultuous month for the nation. Rocked by the disturbing video of George Floyd’s execution, thousands marched to bring attention to the ongoing trauma of systemic racism. 

Some highlighted the connection between civil rights and connectivity in our digital age. “We are calling on our nation’s leadership to enact a robust connectivity plan to address the immediate and future needs of marginalized communities,” wrote Rev. Al Sharpton, FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, Vanita Gupta, Marc Morial, Maurita Cole in Essence. “The Internet is also a powerful tool for building movements—from allowing our communities to share our narratives in new ways to amplifying mobilizing efforts. Online activism is a critical part of how we shared stories about the lives of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown and so many more. Connectivity helps bend the arc of history toward justice.”

See Also: On Juneteenth, Recognize Broadband’s Role in Building a Just Society | Adrianne Furniss | Benton Institute

3. Looking at the Numbers: The Homework Gap Became the Learning Gap

Closing the K-12 Digital Divide in the Age of Distance Learning | Common Sense Media

To curb the spread of COVID-19, schools across the country closed this year, forcing children to attend class online instead of in person. The new focus on remote learning illustrated the importance of broadband for schoolchildren. New research detailed how the country grappled with the challenges of remote learning:

  • 15 million out of the country’s 50.7 million public school students (almost 30%) lack adequate connectivity at home for virtual learning. And 300,000 to 400,000 K–12 teachers live in households without adequate internet connectivity—roughly 10% of all public school teachers—and 100,000 teachers lack adequate home computing devices. 
  • Roughly 20% of parents with homebound school children say it is very or somewhat likely their kids will not be able to complete their schoolwork because they do not have access to a computer at home or a reliable home internet connection. 29% reported that it is at least somewhat likely their kids will have to do their schoolwork on a cellphone. These concerns are especially prevalent among parents with lower incomes.
  • According to the Pew Research Center, 59% of U.S. parents with lower incomes say their child may face digital obstacles in schoolwork. 

John Horrigan used Census Pulse data to compare computer and internet availability for K-12 students from May to November, finding that it has been easier to deliver computers into students' hands than it is to provide their homes internet subscriptions. With the heavier reliance on remote learning, 2020 was the year the homework gap became the learning gap. 

Mark Lieberman wrote in Education Week, “To ignore the digital divide, and the generation of students suffering as a result, is to uphold the boundaries of race and class that keep American society hostile to tens of millions of its people. To tackle it head-on is to imagine how much better America could be if internet access were no longer a luxury afforded only to those who have inherited its privilege.”

See Also:

Broadband and Student Performance Gaps | Quello Center
Internet Access Is a Civil Rights Issue | Mark Lieberman | Education Week
Connect All Students: How States and School Districts Can Close the Digital Divide |  Common Sense Media | Education Superhighway | Boston Consulting Group
Digital Tools & Learning | John Horrigan | Benton Institute
The Other Homework Gap: Post-Secondary Education During COVID-19 | Christopher Ali | Benton Institute

2. The Stories Behind the Learning Gap

The Students Left Behind by Remote Learning | Alec MacGillis | ProPublica and the New Yorker

The numbers behind the learning gap are shocking, but some stories capture a bit more of the complexity of the digital divide. One of the most powerful profiles this year came from ProPublica's Alec MacGinnis. His heartbreaking article chronicles the challenges facing Baltimore students trying to learn remotely while experiencing housing insecurity. It was a sorrowful, crucial reminder that while remote learning opens up some opportunities, policymakers and education professionals must remain responsive to the fact that it can disproportionately hurt some of society's most vulnerable populations. 

As much as we support the opportunities enabled by remote learning and strive to connect more homes, apartment buildings, and community anchor institutions, so too must we be intensely conscious of connecting people. Stories that highlighted the cost of remote learning, and the need for connecting at-risk children, remind us that the digital divide is always a very human problem.

See Also:

She's 10, Homeless and Eager to Learn. But She Has No Internet. | Nikita Stewart | New York Times
Locked Out of Remote School In shelters without Wi-Fi, homeless kids can’t even get online for class. | Bridget Read | The Cut
Depression and Absenteeism: As classes move online, many students aren't coming with them | Natt Garun | The Verge

1. The Keep Americans Connected Pledge

The FCC Should Let Itself Do More to Keep Americans Connected Through the Pandemic | Gigi Sohn | The Verge

The main coronavirus response from the FCC was Chairman Ajit Pai’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge. This voluntary initiative—announced the same day President Donald Trump declared the national coronavirus emergency—was aimed at ensuring Americans would not lose their broadband or telephone connectivity “as a result of the exceptional circumstances” during the pandemic. Chairman Pai asked for and received commitments from over 800 companies and associations to not terminate service, to waive late fees, and to open Wi-Fi hotspots. The pledge ended on June 30, 2020.

But reports surfaced in May about problems with the pledge. Chairman Pai testified before the House Commerce Committee on May 19 and reported that the agency has received around 2,200 complaints related to the pandemic, with 500 specifically about the pledge. An early analysis suggested that broadband providers were not consistently honoring their pledge. Roughly 40% of the complaints pertained to service disruptions, disconnections, and other barriers to internet access. On May 20, the New York Times reported that although broadband providers introduced offers of free and low-cost internet with great fanfare, people signing up for the programs encountered unexpected difficulties and roadblocks. To date, the FCC has taken no enforcement action on any of these complaints. Meanwhile, Chairman Pai continues to extoll the pledge’s success.

Benton Senior Fellow and Public Advocate Gigi Sohn warned about relying on a voluntary pledge when so much was needed to keep Americans connected — and connect millions more who lacked broadband access before COVID-19 struck. She noted that the root of the problem is the FCC's 2017 Restoring Internet Freedom order in which the "Trump FCC blithely threw away its legal power to oversee the activities of these companies by reclassifying them as unregulated 'information services' rather than regulated 'telecommunications services.'"

A voluntary pledge isn’t adequate to ensure that Americans can work, learn, have access to health care, and communicate during this trying time. Without legal authority over broadband providers, the agency cannot hold any of those companies to their promises — they can simply walk away after 60 days or before. Nor can the FCC require broadband providers to take critical steps beyond the pledge, like relaxing data caps, providing low-cost or free connectivity, or other steps that would help those desperately in need during this crisis, if even on a temporary basis. The Communications Act of 1934 gives the FCC a great deal of flexibility to ensure that the public is protected during a national emergency. But when it comes to broadband internet access, this FCC is powerless.

See Also: Keeping Connected Amid Crisis: Policies to Keep people Online During the COVID-19 Pandemic | Free Press

Honorable Mentions:

AT&T, FCC Abandon Rural Broadband Customers |  Kevin Taglang | Benton Institute
Growing Healthy Digital Ecosystems During COVID-19 and Beyond | Colin Rhinesmith and Susan Kennedy | Benton Institute
Digital Equity in Education in the Coronavirus Era | Kids First Chicago
On Sept. 1, Struggling Families Face Evictions Both Online & Off | Dana Floberg | Free Press


Sohn’s article concludes with one of the most important lessons from 2020:

If the COVID-19 crisis has taught us anything, it is that we must remain connected when we are forced to be physically distant. Right now, millions of Americans cannot get broadband internet access, which is the primary way they can stay connected to their schools, workplaces, families, and friends. This alone is cause for Congress, the FCC, and the American people to take a long, hard look at our broadband policies now and in the future. Getting through this national emergency and being prepared for the next one depend on it.

Let us make sure we’ve learned the lessons of 2020 as we launch into 2021.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

Jan 12 -- Closing the Divides: A Plan for Digital Equity and Inclusion (Aspen Institute) 

Jan 12 -- FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's Farewell Message (Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council)

Jan 13 -- January 2021 Open Federal Communications Commission Meeting (FCC)

Jan 14 -- Technological Advisory Council Meeting (FCC)

Jan 14 -- Commerce Spectrum Management Advisory Committee Meeting (NTIA)

Jan 15 -- A Road Map to Tech Jobs (FCC)

Jan 26-27 -- 17th Annual State of the Net Conference

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 2020. 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
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Broadband Delivers Opportunities and Strengthens Communities

By Robbie McBeath.