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Opinion: The Digital Divide Is Worsening Under COVID-19

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The Federal Communications Commission provides data on residential access to internet services sortable by Congressional district. At first glance, Antonio Delgado’s 19th district, which includes most of the mid-Hudson Valley and several rural counties, and Paul Tonko’s 20th district, which includes Albany, Schenectady, and Troy, appear comparable to Peter King’s 2nd urban district on Long Island.

But stark differences quickly emerge when faster speeds and fiber optic connections of 100 Mbps+ are compared: 98.9 percent of families in King’s district have access to at least one internet service provider offering these services, while only 35.2 percent of Tonko’s district have similar access. The percentage drops to 21.4 in Delgado’s district. To their credit, Tonko and Delgado have been fighting for faster internet connections for their constituents since long before the pandemic. These legislators recognize low-speed access affects entire communities because health care is less accessible, small businesses are hampered from expanding, and students are impeded in their studies.

With increasing needs for telecommuting, telehealth, and virtual classrooms because of the coronavirus pandemic, the lack of robust broadband disadvantages rural communities and in particular students. As USA Today reported in April, “students in rural areas often find it impossible to connect to internet service at speeds that would allow conferencing or video streaming because internet providers haven’t extended the lines.”

John Rossi

Federal and State governments have made significant inroads leveling the  playing field between rural and urban schools and libraries by way of the Federal E-rate program. The historically bipartisan E-rate program falls within the jurisdiction of the FCC, and since 1998 the agency has disbursed billions of dollars to schools and libraries with added incentives for rural communities.

Unfortunately, E-rate does not provide funding to the home. The digital equity that students are afforded by schools is dynamically altered for millions of children once back home. According to a recent New York Times op-ed (written by one of the FCC’s commissioners), “tens of millions of Americans cannot access or cannot afford home broadband connections.” This is the digital divide now exacerbated by the pandemic.

But the pandemic has also activated the House and Senate to draft new broadband bills seeking emergency funding and revisions to E-rate rules which currently favor the use of Federal dollars for one-time, internal Wi Fi infrastructure costs  instead of the recurring plan costs for mobile / cellular Wi Fi hotspots, however hotspots can be used on school buses and at home.  

The type of hotspot under consideration is a mobile, pocket-sized device capable of providing access to the internet but, like a cellphone, requiring a service plan with one of the wireless carriers. Minimizing the costs of those wireless plans triggered the FCC’s Keep America Connected Pledge, which encourages wireless companies to provide low-cost, unlimited data plans to schools and libraries. The major carriers have all pledged to do just that, and have also committed to offer low-cost computer tablets. In a parallel action, the FCC authorized wireless companies to use additional spectrum to meet expanded coverage needs, which is particularly important for rural communities.

If any of the pending bills are approved, the wireless carriers would avail the hotspot devices, data plans, and tablets at greatly reduced rates to schools and libraries. The schools and libraries would foster policy for loaning the technology to eligible students and patrons, respectively. The emergency funding, sought by all of the pending bills in Congress, would be used to further defray costs to schools and libraries. Leveraging the existing E-rate program quickens the disbursement of these funds to schools and libraries.

In addition to leveling the digital divide for many students, it is easy to envision benefits for library patrons in need of broadband access. One example: Many seniors and veterans live in rural communities where broadband access can be limited, a bitter irony at a time when telehealth applications are evolving more quickly. Telehealth requires high-speed internet at both ends of the virtual physician visit. An individual desiring a telehealth option, but lacking a broadband connection, could borrow the broadband device from their library. This very concept was described in the Daily Yonder more than a year ago. All we need is for Congress to act.

John Rossi has more than 25 years of experience as a telecom regulatory consultant, including supporting rural healthcare providers, schools, and libraries applying for Federal programs such as E-rate.


The River is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the newsroom.