Coronavirus and Connectivity
On October 1, AT&T stopped selling digital-subscriber-line (DSL) connections. At first glance, the move may seem like a market-based decision to drop an obsolete technology. But as journalists and advocates were quick to pick up on: What about the abandoned customers? At a time when safety dictates that many of us learn and earn from home, how are people to do so when a commercial decision impacts health and well-being?
This week, House Democrats unveiled (and later passed) an updated version of the HEROES Act, a pandemic-relief bill the House passed in May, but was never considered by the U.S. Senate. The original Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act included a number of provisions aimed at getting and keeping more people in the U.S. connected and safe during the pandemic.
As federal COVID-19 relief is set to expire, Senate Republicans finally unveiled their "starting point" for negotiations between the Senate, the House, and the Administration. Two weeks ago, we wondered if extending broadband's reach and connecting more Americans would be part of the mix. Now we have the answer. At a time when working and learning from home are so important to keeping people healthy, Senate Republicans propose doing nothing to get more of us connected online.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is expected to roll out a $1 trillion COVID-response bill as early as the week of July 20. There's no indication yet about whether broadband will be part of the package.
We urge Congress to establish a broadband credit — call it America’s Broadband Credit — to ensure many more people can afford high-speed Internet access. Congress could set a household subsidy of $50 per month, which is roughly the cost of medium-tier broadband plans in urban settings (and it could provide a higher subsidy for tribal lands). That subsidy would allow anyone and any device in the household to be connected to the Internet, simultaneously, which is how so many families today are operating.
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 pandemic has widened long-existing inequities like the digital divide — the term used to refer to the fact that many people across the country lack access to affordable broadband due to a cycle of profit-driven discrimination. Congress cannot stand idly by while millions of people across the country are unable to connect with loved ones, work from home, engage in distance learning, take advantage of telehealth or otherwise fully participate in society because they lack affordable broadband access.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought into sharp relief a host of problems that at their core are about fairness—issues of racial justice, economic security, and the digital divide, among others. I am an optimist, and believe that technology, and the wireless communications sector in particular, has an important role to play here.