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With Covid-19, Broadband Internet Access Is a Civil Rights Issue

With Covid-19, Broadband Internet Access Is a Civil Rights
Issue 1

When Autumn Lee, a pre-med junior at the University of New Mexico, needs to download lectures or class assignments, she hops in her car and drives 45 minutes to the McDonald’s nearest to her town of Sanders, Ariz., to connect to reliable Wi-Fi from her car. After the university sent students home because of the coronavirus pandemic, Ms. Lee grew frustrated with what she said is expensive and data-restricted internet service in Sanders, an unincorporated village of fewer than 1,000 people in eastern Arizona. Relying on her smartphone data plan wasn’t much of an alternative. “It took one or two hours to watch a 20-minute lecture,” she said. “I just got so frustrated, I figured there had to be another way.” So she made the 40-mile trek several times each week — and she’ll likely have to keep doing it now that the school has canceled nearly all in-person classes for the fall.

Like Ms. Lee, many other Americans sheltering from Covid-19 are discovering the limitations of the country’s cobbled-together broadband service. Schooling, jobs, government services, medical care and child care that once were performed in person have been turned over to the web, exposing a deep rift between the broadband haves and have-nots.

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. Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday announced rules that would require the vast majority of schools in California to begin the year remotely, meaning millions of pupils will need a reliable internet connection throughout the day for instruction. Additional districts that are going online only at the start of the year include Nashville, Houston and Atlanta.

Other districts will surely follow, as the raging contagion in their communities gives them little alternative. An adequate connection is no longer a matter of convenience; it is a necessity for anyone wishing to participate in civil society.

Service is often unavailable or too expensive in rural communities and low-income neighborhoods. This has forced people into parking lots outside libraries, schools and coffee shops to find a reliable signal — while others are simply staying logged off. At the same time, there is pressure on small businesses that are still using pen and paper to modernize or face extinction.

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Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

Yet, federal and local initiatives have failed to bring swift internet service to tens of millions of Americans. Like electricity, internet service has become a necessity for modern life.

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“What Covid-19 has done is accelerate the pace of technological change,” said Kathryn de Wit, manager of the Pew Charitable Trust’s broadband research initiative. “Getting online isn’t an option anymore, and if you don’t have that connection, you’re pretty much cut off.”

Efforts to fix this inequity extend back at least as far as 2009, when Congress directed the Federal Communications Commission to develop a plan to get broadband service to nearly every American.

Some 21 million still lack it, according to commissioners’ estimates. Yet that might be an underestimate: One study puts it far higher, at around 42 million. The Pew Research Center said as many as one in four rural Americans lack high-speed internet service, because of either the cost or a lack of availability. Microsoft and others have disputed the F.C.C.’s data, which relies on self-reporting from internet service providers — reporting that can indicate an entire census block has service even if service is provided to just one household within the area.

Getting an accurate count of where broadband is needed is critical, because it helps federal programs like the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund determine where to spend to expand broadband’s reach, meaning the Opportunity Fund’s $20.4 billion in planned outlays over the next 10 years could still leave many Americans behind. Two of the F.C.C.’s five commissioners dissented over parts of the funding, citing the faulty accounting.

Two bills passed by the House last year would help improve how broadband’s reach is counted. These bills are encouraging bipartisan steps toward addressing the problem.

Also worthy of strong consideration is a bill introduced last month by Representative James Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina. It was followed by a Senate version this month, that would devote $100 billion toward making broadband accessible in underserved areas. But Republicans have indicated that they are not likely to support it.

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. Distance learning over Zoom may be a poor substitute for the real thing, but with school closings amid the coronavirus extending into the fall, students without home internet connections could slip further behind.

To help bridge the gap, some school districts distributed Wi-Fi hot spots and laptops to needy students. Francine Hernandez drove to a Tucson, Ariz. parking lot with her 14-year-old daughter every day for nearly a month to access Wi-Fi beamed from yellow district school buses. She said the family had lost service after her husband lost his job, making this the best alternative.

“It was the only way she could finish her homework,” said Ms. Hernandez. She said she sat in the car with her daughter for three hours at a stretch until the buses left before lunch.

Today, broadband is a patchwork of infrastructure and services offered primarily by major corporations like Verizon and AT&T. But swaths of the country have been left with no service, either because of a lack of perceived profits or a lack of the political will to extend fiber to harder-to-reach communities.

Electrifying the entire country a century ago was made possible by a coordinated federal plan from the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt The Rural Electrification Administration brought electricity to areas outside city centers through federal loans to small cooperatives formed to bring power lines and generators to their communities.

While such a centralized effort may be unlikely today without the urgency of the New Deal, the coronavirus has demonstrated that it is time for the federal government to think more creatively and to act more swiftly to deploy broadband service.

As service areas exist today, Geoff Wiggins cannot get broadband internet service extended to his house in Liberty Township, Ohio, near Columbus, even though he lives just a few houses in either direction from available service. He said a local provider told him he’d have to pay more than $30,000 to get internet cable extended just to his driveway. So he has relied on wireless service from phone providers and weekend excursions to the parking lots of nearby businesses.

Universal broadband will be costly, but shelter-in-place orders have demonstrated that it is even more costly to leave so many Americans behind. A House bill to accelerate deployment of the $20.4 billion overseen by the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund is a start, but the F.C.C. has estimated it could take $80 billion to reach nearly every American without broadband. House Democrats proposed in April that more than $80 billion be authorized over five years for broadband expansion.

“People are afraid of the price tag,” said Mr. Clyburn, a co-sponsor of the bill along with Representative Fred Upton, Republican of Michigan. “We can’t afford not to do it.”

Perhaps more daunting is the challenge of providing service that is speedy and at a price that even lower-income Americans can afford. One study found that poorer Americans can afford only $10 a month for internet service. But such service is typically at far slower speeds than what is available in more affluent neighborhoods, or for free at Starbucks.

Private industry may have little desire to provide lower-tier broadband service when it can profit far more from higher-end services. The expansion of federal programs, like E-Rate, to allow schools to distribute broadband service directly to students could also help lower costs.

But those solutions are not a fix to the broader problem. Drawing Wi-Fi from school buses and fast-food restaurants isn’t a long-term solution.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].

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