COVID-19 and the Broadband Gap

Child with Coronavirus backpack walks toward school

School is about to start for millions of kids around the country, in the middle of a pandemic (sadly, the pandemic isn’t over just because we’re over it). We can’t quite imagine how this’ll work out, since if we cast our minds way (way) back to childhood, the likelihood of being able to pay attention and really learn while in easy proximity to TV/video games/snacks/a bed is near zero. Maybe kids are better at focusing than we were. But there’s a bigger problem.

The most recent study by Microsoft shows that 163 million Americans don’t have reliable broadband at home. Around 9 million of those are school-aged children. April’s $2 trillion federal relief package, which might have solved this problem for millions of kids, didn’t address it at all. And, neither the Democrats’ $2 billion proposal to expand internet access, nor the modest $50 million proposal from the Trump administration passed, either.


With the lack of government help, a few corporations have stepped in — Google has pledged to help California students; Altice and Charter Communications are donating free WiFi to New Jersey schoolkids. Some intrepid teachers in Washington and Virginia are offering televised classes, but this sort of piecemeal effort means many fall through the cracks.

In Kentucky and Kansas and Connecticut, access is being expanded, but not quickly enough. In California’s Sacramento Valley, schools are expanding WiFi to reach students, but hotspots weren’t installed until this week.

It’s not enough.

Part of the problem is that the federal government has treated broadband like a luxury rather than the public utility it truly is. And when Net Neutrality was repealed, the FCC relinquished any power it had to hold broadband providers accountable if they fail to connect the people they promised. Broadband companies can build in communities — or not — as they see fit, and companies often don’t want to invest the vast sums of money required to connect rural areas, if they don’t think there’s a good enough return on their investment. And that’s understandable, if you’re looking at things from a business perspective, but in 2020, internet access isn’t a business. It’s a right.

And you could say those communities should just solve the problems by building their own networks, but in two dozen states it’s prohibitively difficult or illegal to do so, largely because of the influence of internet company lobbyists.

In places like Sweden and South Korea, governments built out the broadband infrastructure and made it available for service providers to use, meaning consumers don’t have to beg, borrow, or steal their connection, or pay exorbitant data fees to access the internet on their smartphones.

Broadband companies are also not prevented from utterly soaking the very people they’re supposed to be helping. In Contra Costa County, the school district made a deal with Sprint to provide additional WiFi hotspots for students in need, only to find each one would cost $70. We’re talking about schools in which teachers regularly buy supplies with their own money.

There is simply not enough.

When we rely on charity to take up the slack of our government, we’re putting a bandaid on a cut that didn’t need to be there in the first place. So in spite of the fact that we like to make a lot of collective noise about how important education is in our nation, we’re not backing that up by giving young people the bare minimum they need to succeed. Millions of kids are hamstrung by our failure to plan and our enduring belief that companies should be left to their own devices without oversight.

And that ends our lesson for today.

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