When schools closed amid health warnings of the novel coronavirus, officials at Hopewell City Public Schools in Virginia faced an urgent obstacle: expanding Wi-Fi access to roughly 1,000 students without reliable internet at home.
The school district devised an out-of-the-box solution to "take the internet to the kids," the disrict's IT supervisor Kris Reed told Smart Cities Dive in an earlier interview. They retrofitted 31 school buses with wireless routers, which can cast Wi-Fi signals up to 300 feet, and deployed the buses in densley populated areas of Hopewell.
This creative thinking — replicated in cities across the U.S. — was spurred by coronavirus' exposure of the digital divide as millions are forced to work and learn from home. That exposure has resulted in calls for broadband investments in a bid to close a clear gap in internet access, but cost remains a major barrier to deployment.
"These are not new problems, they are just amplified problems," Katie Jordan, Senior Policy Advisor for North America at The Internet Society, told Smart Cities Dive. "This has been an issue that we have talked about for a decade now, that there are communities that are being left behind. The disparity between those that are connected and under-connected is just so stark that we can't ignore it anymore."
Stark divide given new intensity
Internet equity advocates say the rise in telecommuting, distance learning and telehealth has magnified the digital divide in the United States, not only between urban and rural areas but also within urban areas.
In April, the FCC released its Broadband Deployment Report, which found only 18 million people lack broadband access today — a 14% drop from 2018 numbers. While Pai issued a statement lauding the "progress" that has been made in bridging the digital divide, the findings received a torrent of criticism, including from members of the FCC who said the report understated the problem and gave telecoms too much leeway in promoting their own efforts.
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel argued the coronavirus pandemic has only highlighted the urgent need for more broadband access nationwide. "[This] report ignores the lived experiences of so many people struggling to get access to the broadband they need right now for work, education, healthcare and more," she said in a statement dissenting from the report’s findings.
"My fear at this point isn't that we either make progress or we don't. We have to make progress. We don't have a choice."
Senior Policy Advisor for North America, The Internet Society
Additionally, there are striking discrepancies between the FCC's data and the broadband deployment data collected by private entities. Recent research from BroadbandNow estimates 42 million residents lack access to broadband, while Microsoft data from last September finds that 162 million people do not have internet available at broadband speeds.
The massive differences in reporting harms data credibility and illustrates the need for a total reboot of federal process, Francella Ochillo, executive director of internet advocacy group Next Century Cities, told Smart Cities Dive.
"What we know is that it doesn't matter if either number is true, we know it's just wrong," she said. "I don't know any scientific study that has that type of spread that thinks the results are accurate."
Jordan said the data and clear inequities should be enough to spur action of some sort, but expressed concern that only short-term fixes will be explored.
"My fear at this point isn't that we either make progress or we don't," she said. "We have to make progress. We don't have a choice. The entire planet knows now that not having internet access is not an option. My fear really is what kind of progress do we make. Are we OK with putting Band-Aids everywhere and hoping that's enough or are we going to really solve this problem?"
Myriad companies and associations signed the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) Keep Americans Connected pledge to keep internet services on regardless of a customers' inability to pay phone or internet bills; waive late fees; and open up Wi-Fi hotspots to Americans in need. While the FCC has touted this pledge as effective, prompting Chair Ajit Pai to extend it through June 30, internet equity advocates said the solutions are not sustainable long-term.
"[If] the water stopped running for a day, yes, we could probably all take out a couple of gallons of water and figure it out, but after a while, people are going to say, 'What are we doing about the actual plumbing and the piping?'" Ochillo said.
There are already competing visions of how to improve broadband internet access, especially with a large infrastructure package mooted in Congress in a bid to stimulate the economy.
House Democrats released a proposal in late April — a continuation of the $760 billion Moving Forward Framework put out in January — that includes an updated broadband initiative to invest $80 billion over five years on deploying necessary broadband infrastructure and beginning a $5 billion program to distribute low-interest financing for deployment.
In a statement, House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-SC, said internet must be made accessible to all, just as electricity was made accessible to all through the 1936 Rural Electrification Act.
"Just as the Great Depression made clear to all that electricity was the 'next greatest thing' in the 20th century, the coronavirus pandemic is making clear to all that broadband is the 'next next greatest thing' in the 21st century," Clyburn said.
Many already see the internet as a necessary public utility as important as electricity, gas and water. Some cities have looked to solidify this importance and better control internet access by setting up municipally owned and operated utilities.
"Just as the Great Depression made clear to all that electricity was the 'next greatest thing' in the 20th century, the coronavirus pandemic is making clear to all that broadband is the 'next next greatest thing' in the 21st century."
Rep. James Clyburn, D-SC
House Majority Whip
Ochillo said there are also parallels with the 1950s push to build the interstate highway system in a bid to connect previously hard-to-reach areas and enhance national security during the Cold War. Back then, she said, leaders were bold in their bid to improve accessibility.
"Aren't we in the same place here, where we're saying that the people who are hard to reach are the ones who are the most impacted? They are the ones who don't have a voice in this conversation, all their opportunities are going to be directly limited by their geography," Ochillo said.
There appears to be bipartisan support for increasing broadband investment, some of which has already borne fruit. Congress passed the Broadband DATA Act earlier this year, which directs the FCC to collect more granular deployment data from wired, fixed-wireless, satellite and mobile broadband providers.
And in mid-April, leading Republicans on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee introduced the Eliminating Barriers to Rural Internet Development Grant Eligibility (E-BRIDGE) Act in an effort to reduce the digital divide between rural and urban areas. The bill would remove regulatory hurdles for broadband projects under U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) grants, and help local communities partner with the private sector for more funding flexibility.
"Now, more than ever, it is critical that our rural communities are equipped with the tools and resources to flourish," Rep. John Katko, R-NY, and a sponsor of the E-BRIDGE Act, said in a statement.
In written testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on the state of broadband amid the pandemic, Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association, said policymakers must "develop a coherent and coordinated national broadband infrastructure policy," to avoid future situations of people lacking access during a crisis.
And in separate written testimony, Jonathan Spalter, President and CEO of USTelecom-The Broadband Association, said "incremental approaches" to solving the digital divide have not done enough. Instead, he said, it is time for policymakers to be bolder.
"One of the undeniable lessons from COVID-19 is that the United States needs to once and for all roll up its sleeves and provide the funding necessary for ubiquitous, futureproof broadband," he wrote. "Our goal must be 100% connectivity for all Americans."
'An inflection point for action'?
Partnerships between local communities and telecoms may be key to further bridging the digital divide, particularly when reaching customers in the "last mile" of connectivity, Jordan said. While the cost of connecting that last mile in rural areas is an obstacle preventing deployment she said there are workarounds for cities.
Jordan cited the example of Pu'uhonua o Waimānalo, a native Hawaiian village on the island of O'ahu, which has pushed for community-led internet access after years of neglect by telecom companies. Hawaiian Telecom built fiber in the middle mile to link its core network to the local network plant, then locals dug the trenches to connect fiber to a community building and provide a mesh Wi-Fi network. The internet is locally owned and operated, bringing safe and fast internet to around 100 people in the community.
"In order for our sovereign Nation to evolve independently, it is critical that we have control over our connectivity," Brandon Makaawaawaa, deputy head of state for the indigenous Nation of Hawai'i, wrote in a blog post for the Internet Society. "We consider this national infrastructure, and in many ways, these are our first roadways."
Although partnerships can sometimes underdeliver on promises — like Google Fiber's abortive foray into Louisville, KY that left the company with a $4 million penalty — Jordan and Ochillo agreed that empowering local residents to get involved in broadband deployment can help keep track of service and boost community advocacy for equitable internet access.
"Dig once" policies, where fiber and other infrastructure is installed during road construction and other disruptive building projects, should also be given strong consideration. The House Democrats' plan looks to encourage such policies, which Jordan said is financial sensible.
"It's pennies on the dollar, it can be open access," she said. "That way you're not having to re-dig up the roads six months later when a community has got it together enough to get a grant for fiber access."
With big infrastructure projects having been successful in the past, for such moves to be made with broadband internet, especially as society steps into new phases of the coronavirus pandemic.
"[What] we need to do is take this crisis, take this momentum… make some noise, raise a ruckus, and decide we're going to fix it," Rosenworcel said during an early April webinar hosted by the Brookings Institution. "This is an inflection point for action and we've just got to seize it."