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Broadband's Pandemic Failure: How We Got Here and Why the Federal Government Must Fix It
by
Posted On October 20, 2020
In 2020, the U.S. government will spend $704.6 billion on the military while tens of thousands of children are forced to complete homework assignments from cars in fast food parking lots because they have no internet at home. The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a bright light on high-speed internet inequity over the past 6-plus months—with no plan in sight to truly rectify the problem.

In an April 2020 Pew Research Center report, 53% of U.S. adults surveyed said that the internet has been essential during the pandemic. However, the U.S. government refuses to acknowledge that more than 160 million Americans still do not have access to minimal broadband speeds at home. Affordable high-speed internet provides a level playing field for children, students, and workers, including low-income and rural populations nationwide, and it is the federal government’s responsibility to ensure equitable access for all U.S. residents.

U.S. broadband infrastructure was not prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly, millions of Americans were (and still are) working or studying from home, leading to weak and unstable connections. As the pandemic is increasingly mismanaged, and case and death counts are beginning to rise as we head into the late fall and winter, the teetering infrastructure is becoming increasingly strained.

Since COVID-19 is a public health emergency, libraries closed across the nation in March, and some are still closed to in-person service today, shuttering access to the only internet connection for those without hardware, wires, or cell service. The initial federal pandemic relief bill did not include money for mobile hotspots, which left many schools and libraries without the means to provide remote connections for those in need. Help is uneven from the money that has been parceled out to localities, since some local governments have barred nonprofits or Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) recipients, which includes many libraries, from applying for funds.

In some rural Pennsylvania school districts, up to 50% of students were not able to connect to classwork at the start of the pandemic. Those who were able were further stymied by multiple users in one house all needing to do text- and graphic-intense work simultaneously. Internet connectivity must be shared by all of the connected users. When those user numbers suddenly explode due to working from home and remote schooling, connection speeds tank. With broadband treated as a privilege in federal policy, the pandemic made painfully clear who is deemed worthy of enjoying that privilege.

Faulty Federal Measures

Rural and low-income populations bear the brunt of federal broadband policy. Broadband is not considered a utility, since it is not included in Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. Therefore, the private sector is tasked with ensuring connectivity—and it has unequivocally failed. Note that 26.4% of rural areas have no broadband provider, and another 44.4% are locked into a monopoly with only one provider. Companies do not have any incentive to grow their service into areas with few customers because it will provide little to no profit. The Universal Service Fund, administered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has been slow to adapt to the changing needs of broadband infrastructure funding. Providing grants to expand poor-quality service is not money well-spent.

The broadband issue cannot be addressed if the federal government relies on faulty measures of success. The FCC reports that only 25 million people are without broadband, when the real number is closer to 160 million, according to an expansive 2019 study by Microsoft. The FCC relies on ISPs to honestly self-report their service. Self-reporting is not federally audited. ISPs can report that a census block is “served” if only one customer in that block has the ability to receive internet service—not even that they are actually receiving it.

Furthermore, there are no federal measures for what constitutes “affordable” service, and the standards of high-speed internet have dropped from 100Mbps/50Mbps to 25Mpbs/3Mbps. Anyone who has uploaded a video or tried to watch YouTube at 25Mbps download and 3Mbps upload knows that on no planet would that be considered “high speed.” Benchmarks are easier to meet when they are vague and the bar is constantly lowered.

Planning for the Future

5G is touted as the next big thing in internet connectivity, and yet, rural areas will be left behind, since 5G is short-range, requires many expensive towers, and has a signal can be thwarted by hills and trees. Other “big idea” solutions to provide connectivity in rural areas include SpaceX’s Starlink satellites and Loon balloons by Google’s parent company, Alphabet. However, these solutions cause more problems than they solve, such as destroying our night skies and rural landscapes. Broadband is full of exciting new inventions, but not everyone is permitted to reap their benefits, leaving large swaths of people in the digital dark.

ISPs express concern about what reclassifying broadband as a utility would mean. Providers do not want rates to be federally regulated or prioritized contracts with deep-pocketed companies like Netflix to be terminated. They also do not want to ask permission to stop servicing areas that are unprofitable, such as rural areas, and bemoan that price caps would have to be localized for fairness. While government administration of broadband service would be an intense investment of time and money to the tune of $100 billion or more, it pales in comparison to other budgetary appropriations.

Federal government administration of utilities, as broadband should be considered, has precedent in the Rural Electrification Administration (REA). Formed in 1936 to run electricity to farms because it was cost-prohibitive for private companies to do so, the REA is still lauded today for increasing “productivity and prosperity” in rural America. Despite congratulating ISPs for providing credits, removing data caps, and increasing speeds during the pandemic, it is irresponsible for the FCC to rely on ISPs’ voluntary promises to protect American customers.

Regardless of income and geography, U.S. residents require equitable, affordable access to broadband. The U.S. government must intervene to bridge the digital divide; the first step should be that the FCC reclassify broadband as a telecommunications utility.

Federal dollars should be reallocated from the military-industrial complex to a Universal Broadband Administration that will create and measure standards of service at a minimum of 100Mbps/50Mpbs, invest in fiber internet infrastructure, and ensure that even unprofitable areas and customers have equal opportunity to pursue educational, professional, and recreational broadband happiness.


References

Andriole, S. (2020, March 30). It’s time for an internet-for-all public utility (before corona crashes it). Forbes. forbes.com/sites/steveandriole/2020/03/30/its-time-for-an-internet-for-all-public-utility-before-corona-crashes-it

Brodkin, J. (2020, May 23). Making Internet service a utility—What’s the worst that could happen? Ars Technica. arstechnica.com/information-technology/2020/05/worst-case-scenario-why-the-cable-lobby-is-scared-of-becoming-a-utility

Communications Act of 1934, 47 U.S.C. § 320 (1934). transition.fcc.gov/Reports/1934new.pdf

Companies have gone above and beyond the call to keep Americans connected during the pandemic. (2020, July 1). Federal Communications Commission. fcc.gov/companies-have-gone-above-and-beyond-call-keep-americans-connected-during-pandemic

Congressional Research Service. (2019). Broadband Internet Access and the Digital Divide: Federal Assistance Programs. Federation of American Scientists. fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL30719.pdf

Dahir, A. L. (2020, July 7). A bird? A plane? No, it’s a Google balloon beaming the internet. The New York Times. nytimes.com/2020/07/07/world/africa/google-loon-balloon-kenya.html

Downes, L. (2016, July 7). Why treating the internet as a public utility is bad for consumers. The Washington Post. washingtonpost.com/news/innovations/wp/2016/07/07/why-treating-the-internet-as-a-public-utility-is-bad-for-consumers

Executive Branch of the U.S. Government. (2019). A Budget for a Better America. whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/budget-fy2020.pdf

Grush, L. (2020, March 24). The true impact of SpaceX’s Starlink constellation on astronomy is coming into focus. The Verge. theverge.com/2020/3/24/21190273/spacex-starlink-satellite-internet-constellation-astronomy-coating

How internet access can boost the economy and social equality. (2014, April 25). Forbes. forbes.com/sites/groupthink/2014/04/25/how-internet-access-can-boost-the-economy-and-social-equality

Kahan, J. (2019, April 8). It’s time for a new approach for mapping broadband data to better serve Americans. Microsoft on the Issues. blogs.microsoft.com/on-the-issues/2019/04/08/its-time-for-a-new-approach-for-mapping-broadband-data-to-better-serve-americans

McBride, B. (2017, February 21). Celebrating the 80th anniversary of the Rural Electrification Administration. U.S. Department of Agriculture. usda.gov/media/blog/2016/05/20/celebrating-80th-anniversary-rural-electrification-administration

Tibken, S. (2018, October 25). Why 5G is out of reach for more people than you think. CNET. cnet.com/news/why-5gs-out-of-reach-for-more-people-than-you-think

U.S. Department of Defense. (2020, February 10). DOD releases fiscal year 2021 budget proposal. U.S. Department of Defense. defense.gov/Newsroom/Releases/Release/Article/2079489/dod-releases-fiscal-year-2021-budget-proposal

Vogels, E. A., Perrin, A., Rainie, L., & Anderson, M. (2020, April 30). 53% of Americans say the internet has been essential during the COVID-19 outbreak. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. pewresearch.org/internet/2020/04/30/53-of-americans-say-the-internet-has-been-essential-during-the-covid-19-outbreak

Wolfman-Arent, A. (2020, April 1). Coronavirus shutdown reveals inequity of student internet access across Pa. WHYY/PBS/NPR. whyy.org/articles/coronavirus-shutdown-reveals-inequity-of-student-internet-access-across-pa


Jessica Hilburn is the executive director of Benson Memorial Library in Titusville, Pa. She is a historian and the former head of adult services and reference. She enjoys popular culture in libraries, politics, true crime, audiobooks, and is passionate about advocating for rural communities and libraries, as well as broadband equity as a 2020 KINBER TGL Fellow. Her writing has been published by Information Today, Inc.; ABC-CLIO/Libraries Unlimited; Library JournalThe Oilfield Journal; and The History Press (which published her book, Hidden History of Northwestern Pennsylvania).

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