Data & Mapping
On February 17, the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a hearing on COVID-19's impact on the digital divide and the homework gap. There was bipartisan agreement on the importance of expanding broadband access. Democrats focused more on affordability issues, especially during the pandemic, as well as improving data on where broadband is available and where it isn't. Republicans mostly extolled deregulation as a way to encourage rural broadband deployment and the need to streamline wireless infrastructure to facilitate buildout of the next generation of wireless, 5G.
With great drama, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 became law on December 27, 2021. The $2.3 trillion COVID relief and government spending bill extended unemployment benefits and ensured the government can keep running. The $900 billion COVID relief provision includes over $7 billion to help improve connectivity in the U.S.
In October 2019, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society issued Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s. The agenda was comprehensive, constructed upon achievements in communities and insights from experts across the nation. The report outlined the key building blocks of broadband policy—deployment, competition, community anchor institutions, and digital equity (including affordability and adoption).
Over the last few months, the National Broadband Availability Map (NBAM) added Alaska, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Montana, New York, Oklahoma and Vermont to its growing roster of state participants. To date, the NBAM includes 30 states and four federal agencies: the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the Economic Development Administration (EDA), and the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC).
Northeast Wisconsin races to improve rural broadband after pandemic exposes 'horrible' internet speeds
Broadband service gets notoriously worse as you move farther from urban areas, creating gaps in internet access that became more visible after the coronavirus pandemic forced people to work from home, attend school virtually and even see their doctors online. The problem isn't new — people have complained for years about the lack of broadband — but government officials across northeastern Wisconsin are now accelerating efforts to improve speeds in some of the region's most remote areas. One major step for Brown County is finding out exactly how bad the problem is for some residents.
Many states have their own offices focusing on rural broadband, and there is very little coordination between those offices, and the many federal agencies responsible for elements of internet connectivity extension. President Joe Biden and Congressional leaders can include language that ensures that better coordination leads to faster deployment of rural broadband solutions. It is not as if there has been no work done on this to date. The Federal Communications Commission has been working on this issue for years, and some progress has been made.
Some states are starting to move with more urgency to solve the broadband gap. It's a problem that affects millions of Americans and is particularly urgent in light of a pandemic that has forced most interactions, from classes to weddings, to go online. While the federal government works to allocate $20 billion on top of billions of dollars in funding already earmarked for unserved communities, there remains a lack of understanding of where the problems lie.
The faulty Federal Communications Commission national broadband map has essentially made millions of Americans without fast internet "invisible," as Microsoft put it, and unless the data improve, they're likely to remain so. But there's reason to be hopeful. Thanks to $65 million in funding from Congress in Dec, the FCC now will require internet service providers to share more detailed data, giving a better picture of what areas are unserved by broadband.
Appalachia represents a key test for President Joe Biden's $20 billion plan to get broadband access to communities that don't have it. President Biden, who said during his campaign that rebuilding the middle class in America is the "moral obligation of our time," faces a myriad of challenges in closing the gap, from actually laying down fiber-optic lines to educating consumers and ensuring that prices are affordable. In 127 of Appalachia's 420 counties, less than 75% of households had a connected device.