The coronavirus pandemic has made abundantly clear that access to high-speed broadband internet is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.
During a year in which our kitchen tables became offices, our computers became classrooms and our doctors became pixels on a screen, Americans experienced the critical importance of high-speed internet – and the harmful impacts of the digital divide. As Congress debates legislation to jumpstart the economy and revitalize the nation’s infrastructure, policymakers should prioritize ways to get high-speed internet into the hands of Americans whose lack of digital access is putting their communities at a disadvantage during the pandemic and into the future.
In 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey found that nearly 36 million American households did not subscribe to a broadband internet service. According to analysis of that data from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, 26 million of these households were in urban areas, while 10 million were in rural areas.
The widening gap in access to digital services has left Americans in rural and other underserved areas at a great disadvantage throughout the pandemic. Unlike the majority of Americans, those without broadband could not reliably use the internet to find new job opportunities, training or resources; connect with businesses and government services; stay in touch with friends and family during extended periods of isolation; or ensure students keep up as schools pivoted to remote learning.
The good news is that the pandemic has also proven the resilience of our nation’s existing telecommunications networks. Stuck in their homes, Americans with broadband became more reliant on it than ever before, moving their personal and professional worlds entirely online. Data usage on broadband networks, including 4G and 5G wireless networks, soared to new heights even as people became less mobile – according to an assessment from OpenVault, the push toward remote work drove a 51 percent increase in broadband usage in 2020.
And yet, despite the massive shift in data traffic, this country’s telecommunications networks managed the task seamlessly – further evidence that our private sector-built telecommunications infrastructure has created a robust and trustworthy network.
But a reliable network means nothing for Americans who lack connectivity in the first place.
As we emerge from the pandemic, go back to work and school, and hopefully experience a return to normal, we cannot reduce our focus on broadband inequity. Now is the moment to act – not only do we have the political will, but the emergence of 5G has given us a critical new tool to achieve universal broadband. 5G, including both mobile and fixed wireless, offers the high speed and low latency we expect from a fiber connection with the flexibility and lower cost of deployment of a wireless connection, particularly in rural and underserved communities.
U.S. carriers have proven the viability of nationwide 5G networks built on secure infrastructure in communities around the country and government entities have begun to take steps to further encourage and expedite that buildout. However, more can and must be done by policymakers to hasten the pace and ubiquity of deployment. A failure to rapidly and fully deploy 5G in the United States will not only cause us to fall behind global competitors and put our innovation leadership at risk, but it threatens to keep many Americans on the wrong side of the digital divide.
First, we need to ensure that the funds and incentives are in place to encourage private sector buildout into underserved and rural communities where deployment cost is high. Programs like the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and the 5G Fund for Rural America are a great start, but they are just that — a start. Universal broadband access and 5G deployment should continue to be priorities for the new Congress and administration in any infrastructure or economic stimulus spending.
Second, we need to assist lower-income consumers in getting online so they can access the education, employment, health care and other digital services the pandemic has shown all Americans desperately need. The most recent economic stimulus and omnibus spending enacted by Congress includes emergency support for broadband service and devices for education and health care, but more must be done.
Third, we need to continue allocating mid-band spectrum, with bandwidth and propagation characteristics that make it a perfect fit for rural communities, for 5G use. The CBRS and C-Band auctions are critical steps in the right direction, and the FCC and policymakers should continue on this path with other mid-band spectrum.
Lastly, federal, state and local policymakers must continue to streamline the 5G siting and permitting process. The communities that welcome 5G investment will reap the benefits for their citizens. We need to take care to ensure that red tape and bureaucratic processes don’t slow the rollout of 5G in America. Steps have already been taken to advance this cause and policymakers shouldn’t take their foot off the gas.
The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed how we work, learn, get health care and connect with family and friends. This has clearly illustrated the importance of making broadband available to all of America and reducing the digital divide. As Congress considers investments in infrastructure and economic stimulus, it should include significant funding for deployment and adoption of 5G wireless broadband in rural and underserved communities.
John Godfrey is senior vice president of public policy for Samsung Electronics America based in Washington, D.C.
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