One instruction remains consistent and clear during the coronavirus pandemic: Stay home. For many of us, that means taking our daily activities — work, school, medical care and connecting with loved ones — online. But not for everyone. The coming weeks will lay bare the already-cruel reality of the digital divide: tens of millions of Americans cannot access or cannot afford the home broadband connections they need to telework, access medical information and help young people learn when school is closed. When public health requires social distancing and even quarantine, closing the digital divide becomes central to our safety and economic security.
Eliminating the digital divide permanently is a long-term problem that requires sustained resources and commitment. But the federal government and the technology and communications sector should work together — right away — to take immediate, emergency actions to get high-quality broadband into homes in communities hit by the coronavirus. Here is what a connectivity stimulus should include:
The Federal Communications Commission must act. Every year, the commission spends about $8 billion to bring communications services to rural communities and low-income Americans. During this crisis, we should rapidly use these funds to increase the stock of lendable free hotspots available through schools and public libraries, expand the reach of telemedicine, and enhance Lifeline, the only federal program with the sole mission of bringing affordable communications to low-income Americans and a critical aspect of our social safety net in times of economic turmoil. This would not be the first time the F.C.C. has expanded Lifeline in a crisis; the George W. Bush-era F.C.C. strengthened its programming as a result of Hurricane Katrina. This would have the added benefit of injecting money into the economy as Congress considers other stimulus options.
We should also eliminate red tape and extend regulatory flexibility where doing so would allow broadband providers to quickly expand access. The commission could, for example, expedite decisions on waivers and experimental licenses that would let providers deploy unused and inefficiently used wireless spectrum or new technologies to increase their capacity and reach.
All broadband providers should join the effort to support Americans in need. We often think of the digital divide as a rural issue, but Census Bureau surveys show that three times as many households in urban areas remain unconnected as in rural areas. In urban areas, cost is often the problem. Based on Pew data and the American Community Survey, researcher John Horrigan estimates that more than 18 million households lack broadband because it’s too expensive. To meet the needs of low-income people, some broadband providers already offer a lost-cost tier. In times of emergency, no American should go without a connection because of cost.
We should encourage all broadband providers to join the coronavirus-response effort by creating or expanding low-cost options for basic internet connections. Some have already done so, and we must do more for low-income families, who already bear too many burdens of this health crisis and its economic fallout.
Finally, in light of the number of Americans who will be telecommuting, using telemedicine, attending classes online, and otherwise using the internet more, wireless providers should waive data caps in affected communities for the next 60 days. This tailored approach will no doubt cost telecom companies, but it recognizes the urgency of the moment. We should also encourage wireless providers to use the tools they have for natural disasters and other emergencies, such as cell sites on wheels, to areas lacking broadband service.
For the first time ever in responding to an emergency pandemic, Americans will rely on the internet extensively for an indeterminate amount of time. By working together to quickly increase access to broadband, the technology and telecommunication sectors can help ensure that all Americans who need treatment can seek it safely and those who need to be at home can stay there. Those efforts will also help power our economy and alleviate the coronavirus’s economic consequences that are already showing up in stock market activity and other indicators. A connectivity stimulus will make all of our other tools to fight the coronavirus stronger.
Geoffrey Starks (@GeoffreyStarks) is a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission.
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