The COVID-19 pandemic has made the need for fast, reliable internet connectivity a high priority. Governments at all levels have stepped up to help, but challenges persist.
With 82% of federal government executives saying the expanded levels of remote work sparked by COVID-19 precautions will continue for some time, according to a survey by SAIC, and 10 states with full or partial school district closures in effect as of Dec. 21, the pandemic has made the need for fast, reliable internet connectivity a high priority. Governments at all levels have stepped up to help, but challenges persist.
For example, at the federal level, several efforts to improve access have been made or are in the works. Specific to the pandemic, the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act let state, local and tribal governments use the $150 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund for broadband investments. The follow-on aid package approved in December 2020 set aside $7 billion to help Americans connect and pay for high-speed internet.
Also in December 2020, the Federal Communications Commission announced the allocation of $9.2 billion from its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund Phase I auction for high-speed broadband services to 5.2 million unserved residences and businesses.
Earlier last year, the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act was introduced in Congress to invest $100 billion to build high-speed broadband in unserved and underserved areas.
Specifically to increase accessibility in rural areas -- typically the most underserved -- the Agriculture Department’s Rural Development Broadband ReConnect Program extended its application deadlines for loans and grants for construction, improvement or acquisition of equipment needed to provide service.
In fact, access has been increasing. More than 85% of Americans have access to fixed terrestrial broadband service at 250/25 Mbps, a 47% increase since 2017, according to FCC’s “2020 Broadband Deployment Report.” In the same timeframe, the number of people in rural areas who can access such service grew by 85%, and in 2019, fiber networks became available to about 6.5 million additional unique homes. This represents “the largest one-year increase ever, with smaller providers accounting for 25% of these new fiber connections,” the report stated.
In dissenting comments on the report, though, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel disputed the applicability of the report’s broadband access claims, which are based on long-disputed, unverifiable carrier-submitted data. “This number wildly understates the extent of the digital divide in this country. That’s because if a broadband provider tells the FCC that it can offer service to a single customer in a census block, the agency assumes that service is available throughout,” she wrote. “The result is data that systematically overstates service across the country.”
More can be done, particularly at the state level, said Brian Whitacre, a professor at Oklahoma State University and coauthor of a study on state broadband policy published in October 2020. States with the most broadband success typically have two characteristics: few, if any, restrictions on municipal broadband and their own state-level funding programs.
Using county-level data from 2012 to 2018, the study found that state-level funding programs increase general broadband availability by one to two percentage points, while municipal restrictions decrease that availability by 3 percentage points. About 20 states still restrict broadband building to private providers.
“During this time it’s so obvious how important broadband is,” Whitacre said. “I can’t imagine going through this pandemic without a good internet connection. Think about the people that don’t have one and are struggling to do remote schooling and remote work.”
States that are moving toward their own broadband efforts include Idaho, Iowa, Louisiana, North Carolina and Texas, each of which created a broadband task force in 2019, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Seven other states set up broadband funding structures, and six states enacted bills giving electric cooperatives the ability to provide broadband.
Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, pointed to Building a New Digital Economy in North Carolina (BAND-NC), a program that focuses on counties as a model for other states. Established by the Institute for Emerging Issues at North Carolina State University in partnership with the state Department of Information Technology’s Broadband Infrastructure Office, BAND-NC will provide mini grants to communities with the goal of making North Carolina the first state with a digital inclusion plan in every county.
“That is just so smart and so good in terms of an approach,” Mitchell said. “Every county in the country should have its own plan for how it is going to solve the challenge of getting everyone online.”
That’s because although there are commonalities across rural and urban areas, each locality has its own needs. These plans will help better direct funding, Mitchell added.
The National Digital Inclusion Alliance has documented local governments’ accessibility initiatives in response to COVID-19. They include the launch of Chicago Connected to provide free high-speed internet to about 100,000 Chicago Public Schools students and plans in San Antonio to build LTE wireless broadband connections using fiber-optic cable networks to connect 20,000 students’ homes to schools’ wireless networks.
“Before COVID hit, there was a discussion about what we call the homework gap, which is students without access at home, how they’re falling behind in classes, but since then, that’s become forefront,” Whitacre said. “Everyone knows about that now, so that was kind of a marginal discussion before. Now, everyone realizes it.”
Reports of city-dwellers heading to more suburban and rural areas will also drive connectivity initiatives, he said. “If we do see this population redistribution, those people are going to be clamoring for broadband, and that can only help make the case that providers need to act,” Whitacre said. “I would suspect that people who did flee big cities and go to a rural area looked at whether broadband was available before they moved there. I don’t know that people that are used to that connectivity are going to go somewhere where that’s not available.”