Coronavirus and Connectivity
We're all obviously aware of the unprecedented National Emergency President Donald Trump declared on March 13, 2020 and the shelter-at-home orders many have lived under in the last few months. Telework, telehealth, and distance education have all boomed during this time, testing residential broadband networks like never before. Back in the early weeks of the crisis, assessments based on data from broadband providers themselves and third-party internet traffic monitors led one policymaker to declare that surges in Internet traffic are well within the capacity of U.S.
On May 12, House Democrats unveiled the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act. "We are presenting a plan to do what is necessary to address the corona crisis," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as she announced the legislation.
The time has come for Congress to establish a broadband credit—call it America’s Broadband Credit (ABC)—to ensure that people who can’t afford broadband can use broadband. The debate on whether broadband is a luxury or an essential connection to society is over. Broadband is critical, as Americans have now learned as they work, study, consult doctors, socialize, shop—and really lead their lives from home. But for too many, especially the newly unemployed, the cost of broadband service is not affordable.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai announced the extension of his Keep Americans Connected Pledge until June 30, 2020. While the FCC encourages all providers that have signed the pledge previously to extend their commitments to June 30, we understand that some providers, particularly those in small markets and rural areas, may not be able to do so as a result of financial challenges. Those providers should contact [email protected] by May 12 if they wish to opt out of the extension.
The debate on whether broadband is a luxury or an essential connection to society is over. More than twice as many people are now using residential broadband during business hours as before the COVID-19 crisis. Over 55 million students have been impacted by school closures. The use of telehealth has skyrocketed. This, I believe, is our broadband moment: a hinge of history that will determine whether today’s residential broadband is fit for the changed world in which we inhabit or whether its limits work to disadvantage those that are not equipped to use it.
In Virginia, as in other states, school officials are racing to reach families by publicizing discounted offers from Internet providers, extending school Wi-Fi into parking lots, and distributing hotspot devices. And schools trying to do more face a major hurdle: long-standing laws that effectively bar county governments and public school systems from providing Internet directly to families.
The digital divide was a problem before the pandemic. Now it’s an existential problem for students who can’t access live-streamed classes, for the ill who can’t virtually consult with a doctor, for isolated individuals who can’t find human connection on their laptop screens. The burden, as ever, disproportionately falls on the low-income, rural and nonwhite. There’s more the government can do today, and there’s an opportunity to lay the groundwork for the days to come.
We have incorporated the internet as a critical part of our personal and professional lives. This is not going to change. The COVID-19 crisis has sped us forward to a paradigm shift in which we rely on the internet to bring economic and social activity to us—rather than us going to them. Yet, tens of millions of Americans do not have access to or cannot afford quality internet service. The United States has an internet access problem, especially in rural areas. The existing program to extend broadband has become a corporate entitlement for incumbent telephone companies.
The days of Dish and T-Mobile playing nice may be coming to an end. On March 13, during the height of the coronavirus crisis, Dish lent its portfolio of 600 MHz spectrum to T-Mobile at no cost for 60 days in order to bolster wireless capacity during the pandemic. Recently, T-Mobile asked Dish for an extension of its 600 MHz spectrum loan until June 30. T-Mobile says the continued use of Dish’s spectrum is necessary to support the needs of customers who are still working and learning from home.