The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare how important the internet is to our economy and society. Now, policymakers must move quickly to ensure that every American everywhere has access to this indispensable tool.
In March 2020, most of American society ground to a halt as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. How people would fare over the next year wound up having a lot to do with their ability to access reliable, high-speed internet.
Many Americans were fortunate and able to move business meetings online while working virtually from home. People with medical issues, who were typically more susceptible to the coronavirus, were able to access medical professionals from home thanks to telemedicine. But people without internet access were left to fend for themselves. Nowhere was this more apparent than in education.
For years, educators have discussed America’s “education gap,” the disparity in academic outcomes between students based on their socioeconomic status. The pandemic exposed this gap for all to see firsthand.
When schools moved to virtual learning, the nearly 17 million American students without home internet access were shut out. Furthermore, teachers reported that students with slow internet connections quickly became frustrated and quit showing up for virtual classes.
Acting Chair of the Federal Communications Commission Jessica Rosenworcel has worked to call attention to this problem and get it addressed. As she stated in an interview late last year:
“I looked at the data and I found that seven in 10 teachers would assign homework that requires internet access. But FCC data consistently shows that one in three households don’t have broadband at home. I started calling where those numbers overlap the ‘homework gap’ because I felt that this portion of the digital divide really needed a phrase or a term to describe it because it’s so important.”
This problem existed long before the pandemic, and unfortunately has only grown. As a nation, it hurts us economically. The United States ranks 20th globally in the percentage of our population with internet access behind our economic competitors like the United Kingdom, Japan and South Korea.
More importantly, it hurts these vulnerable American families that cannot access the basic levels of the modern economy. A recent article in The Atlantic summed it up this way:
“In 2019, a quarter of adults earning less than $30,000 annually relied on their smartphones alone for internet access, up from 12 percent in 2013. Many of these individuals are forced to fill out job applications, school forms, and other paperwork on a five-inch screen.”
In 2021, it is simply unacceptable to shut out tens of millions of Americans from our increasingly online society. The public and private sectors must come together to address the digital divide. We must view the internet as an essential utility, as critical to households as electricity.
Fortunately, there are a number of proposals out there to expand broadband, including legislation recently introduced by Senators Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the Broadband Reserve Fund Act. This legislation would take the net proceeds from the most recent spectrum auction by the Federal Communications Commission and put them into a reserve fund that could pay for expanded broadband access around the country. When it comes to broadband expansion, there is not a one-size-fits-all strategy. Different parts of our country have different needs, and we must be flexible in coming up with the right solutions to meet them.
The good news is that the COVID pandemic has brought renewed attention to this challenge and created an urgency to fix it. As Senator Wicker said when introducing his legislation, “The pandemic has made internet access more vital than ever as Americans are relying on broadband services to work, learn, and connect with love ones.”
The pandemic has been a crisis felt by the entire nation, but the digital divide is no less a crisis for the tens of millions of Americans who will remain shut out of schools and the broader economy. It is past time to address this inequity.