“An adequate connection is no longer a matter of convenience; it is a necessity for anyone wishing to participate in civil society,” wrote the New York Times Editorial Board in an opinion article published on Sunday. Yet, tens of millions of Americans still lack reliable access to broadband connectivity.
The Times editorial echoed the concerns of many digital equity advocates, who have been ringing alarm bells ever since the Covid-19 pandemic moved most aspects of everyday life online, cutting off anyone without a home Internet connection.
To help bridge the gap, many states and localities have deployed free Wi-Fi hotspots to schools, libraries, and other public spaces. But, as the Times points out, this is not enough — the federal government must do more to connect our communities. “[T]he coronavirus has demonstrated that it is time for the federal government to think more creatively and to act more swiftly to deploy broadband service,” argued the editorial, pointing to legislation that would make an impact, including the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act and the Rural Broadband Acceleration Act.
Digital Divides Threaten Students’ Education
Inadequate Internet access isn’t only a problem in rural areas, where broadband infrastructure isn’t always available. Many city residents also lack home connectivity, due to the high cost of a subscription. The Times explained:
In urban areas, the struggle to get reliable or affordable Internet service disproportionately affects minorities. The cost of broadband makes it three times more likely that households without Internet service can be found in urban, rather than rural, environments, according to John B. Horrigan of the Technology Policy Institute.
In our transition to online everything, many people without broadband access have been left behind. This is particularly true for disconnected students, who must search out public Wi-Fi or forgo their education. To illustrate the struggle, the Times editorial shared the story of an Arizona college student who frequently drives 40 miles to the nearest McDonalds to download class lectures because of the slow, expensive Internet access in her small hometown. After a job loss led to the loss of their broadband subscription, another Arizona family drove nearly every day for a month to a school bus hotspot so their teen daughter could access schoolwork.
Next school year isn’t looking any better for students, according to the editorial board:
Those rifts are poised to turn into chasms, as the global pandemic threatens another year of in-person schooling for American children. Large public-school districts like Los Angeles and Prince George’s County in Maryland, as well as a variety of colleges and universities, from Hampton to Harvard to Scripps, have canceled in-school instruction at the start of the coming year.
How the Federal Government Can Help
As the Times editorial board suggests, we need bigger and bolder action from our elected officials in Congress to connect all Americans, during the pandemic and beyond.
One of the solutions mentioned in the editorial is the Rural Broadband Acceleration Act, which calls on the Federal Communications Commission to speed up the planned disbursement of $20.4 billion in rural broadband subsidies. The legislation would not require any additional funding to accelerate the deployment of high-speed Internet access to unserved households and businesses.
Times editors point to the bipartisan Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act as another option. The bill would commit $100 billion to fund broadband deployment and adoption, including an Internet access subsidy for low-income households. Though expensive, the plan is worth it, the Times argued:
Universal broadband will be costly, but shelter-in-place orders have demonstrated that it is even more costly to leave so many Americans behind . . . ‘People are afraid of the price tag,’ said [South Carolina Representative James] Clyburn, a co-sponsor of the bill along with Representative Fred Upton, Republican of Michigan. ‘We can’t afford not to do it.’
Read the full editorial from the New York Times.