Universal connectivity is still the goal. We need to keep working on long-term solutions.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Digital Beat

Universal connectivity is still the goal. We need to keep working on long-term solutions.

Eleven years ago Congress instructed the Federal Communications Commission to develop a national broadband plan to ensure that all Americans had affordable access to broadband and that America utilized broadband to advance a number of national purposes, including health care, education, job training, public safety, and economic growth. Ten years ago this week, the team delivered that plan. On the occasion of the anniversary, team alumni -- along with Benton and a number of other public interest groups -- had planned to get together to discuss what should be the agenda for a plan for the next decade and what lessons from the plan, and the process that created it, would be helpful as we look toward the future. Due to the coronavirus -- a pandemic that is demonstrating both the stengths and weaknesses of U.S. broadband -- that event has been postponed. But over the coming days and weeks, we will be publishing notes from a number of people who were scheduled to speak at the event.


Coronavirus has caused a seismic shift in everything about life as we know it. Schools, businesses, and non-essential entities are closed indefinitely. As fear and economic uncertainty escalate, so does the need for information.

Students have been forced into remote learning programs regardless of whether they are equipped. Before COVID-19, many did not have the requisite tools to complete assignments at home. Now, some of those students, who were already at a disadvantage, will spend the remainder of the school year using smartphones to comply with remote learning mandates.

Many small businesses that shut their doors and laid-off employees are unlikely to reopen in their previous forms. Even though some will, that won’t stop the tidal wave of economic devastation headed for their communities. Unemployment claims have already exceeded three million while economists expect job losses to soar to 47 million

Local governments working feverishly to ensure the health, safety, and well-being of those residents are also responsible for protecting their own workforce. It has become clear, if it wasn’t already, that being able to maintain real-time communications during a national emergency is critical. In fact, high-speed connectivity has become the oxygen of those networks.

Long before COVID-19 introduced itself, federal, state and local governments struggled with how to get high-speed connectivity to every community. Bringing broadband within reach for every American was not just an aspirational goal, it is a Congressional mandate which the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has painstakingly tried to address for years.

The National Broadband Plan, released in 2010, outlined the agency’s goal to make high-speed connectivity ubiquitous. It cited broadband as essential infrastructure for economic growth, education, health care, and more. Ten years later, we are a country of over 327 million people and independent research estimates show that over 100 million Americans still do not have access to or cannot afford the FCC’s definition of broadband, a minimum of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds.

Work on getting broadband to every community–including Tribal lands, rural areas, and overlooked urban communities–must continue.

It’s tempting to get lost in the politics of this issue as there is vast disagreement about how much progress has been made. Whether you think broadband should be classified under a Title I versus Title II framework could immediately reveal your political stripes and, in a highly polarized environment, shut down any hopes for collaboration.

But there’s something sobering about this moment. Crisis tends to bring out the best in humanity and a collective willingness to do more.

For instance, the FCC waived Rural Health Care and E-Rate gift rules to make it easier for broadband providers to support telehealth and remote learning programs. It temporarily waived certain recertification and reverification requirements as well as de-enrollment and non-usage rules for Lifeline subscribers helping low-income households to stay connected. Over 500 internet and phone providers accepted the agency’s call to action by joining Chairman Pai’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge. Those providers agreed:

  • not to terminate service to any residential or small business customers because of their inability to pay their bills due to the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic;
  • to waive any late fees that any residential or small business customers incur because of their economic circumstances related to the coronavirus pandemic; and
  • to open its Wi-Fi hotspots to any American who needs them.

These are all important contributions to the emergency relief effort, however, millions of Americans who have been impacted by COVID-19 still do not have access to broadband and will not benefit from short-term promises to stay connected.

Short-term solutions cannot solve a long-term problem. And nationwide connectivity issues cannot be solved without state and local perspectives.

According to Indiana Lt. Governor Suzanne Crouch, “Connectivity is even more vital right now for people to connect with their loved ones, receive necessary telemedicine services, complete their e-learning assignments, continue their work remotely and so much more.” In the post-COVID landscape, Americans’ ability to get real-time safety updates, search for employment, apply for loans, etc. will depend on high-speed connectivity more so than ever before.

Knowing that broadband may be the only means for governments to remain operational, entrepreneurs to resurrect their businesses, or communities to stay connected during this crisis makes removing barriers to access and adoption even more urgent.

Funding for hot spots, eliminating data caps, disconnection moratoriums, and the like are all critical, short-term remedies. But reaching unserved and underserved areas that continue to be denied the benefits of digital citizenship requires coordination with municipal networks, electric co-ops, telephone co-ops, and wireless internet service providers that are positioned to accelerate broadband deployment. These entities have the expertise and relationships required for long-term success. More importantly, we cannot achieve universal connectivity without them.

Affordability continues to be a significant barrier to adoption. Broadband advocates have urged the FCC to collect pricing information. Promoting competition at the local level would also help drive down costs while incentivizing incumbent providers to lower prices and improve speeds in monopoly and duopoly markets. Moreover, policymakers and lawmakers at every level of government agree that the FCC’s broadband mapping process needs improvement. In fact, Congress passed the Broadband DATA Act in March 2020, requiring the FCC to collect more granular information on where broadband internet is and is not available. State and local leaders who have had to develop their own data sets should be viewed as a resource in that endeavor. 

Broadband networks have been an indispensable tool for local officials as well as their residents. The municipal network in Mount Vernon, Washington, has been key for the city’s emergency preparedness. “The reliability and security of an institutional network have not only kept City functions operating, but our hospital, 911 center, and County government working at full capacity,” says Mayor Jill Boudreau. In Lexington, Kentucky, that sentiment is shared. Chief Information Officer Aldona Valicenti stated, “The need for broadband is demonstrated every day during this COVID-19 crisis. … This is an urgent wakeup call for the entire nation.”

It certainly is. It’s time to harness the ambition of the National Broadband Plan and inventive COVID-19 problem-solving skills into an action plan that connects every community. Being able to ensure public health and recharge stalled local economies depends on it.

Francella Ochillo is the Executive Director of Next Century Cities, a non-profit membership organization founded to support mayors and local officials who work to ensure that every resident​ has fast, affordable, and reliable internet access.

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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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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