U.S. broadband networks have been put to the test from exceptionally heavy use during the coronavirus pandemic, and luckily, they’ve scored high marks when compared to Europe’s networks. Our internet was able to handle as much as a 50 percent increase in traffic, according to USTelecom, thanks to our history of policies starting in the Clinton administration that rely on broadband deployment and continual network improvement by the private sector.
But the internet’s positive performance under pressure is meaningless to those who aren’t online. The “homework gap” affects about 12 million children of school age across the country who lack broadband connectivity in their homes. The culprit is a combination of a lack of access to a broadband connection (especially for those in rural areas) and a lack of adoption (primarily among low-income families in more urban and suburban areas). For kids stuck in the gap, overcoming the disadvantage is hard enough when teachers assign homework that has an online component; it becomes devastating when children who rely on public Wi-Fi to complete homework at the local McDonald’s or the parking lot of the library cannot do so because they are stuck at home.
Layering the pandemic on top of the digital divide is straining our education system. Schools simply weren’t prepared for this scenario. New York, for example, had required K-12 schools to practice 12 fire drills per year, but they neither mandated nor rehearsed learning from home. Now, schools have closed in every state, and more than 55 million children and 124,000 schools have been forced to switch to online learning – but where are children forced to stay at home supposed to learn without home broadband?
The Federal Communications Commission’s Jessica Rosenworcel said the homework gap is “the cruelest part of the digital divide” and “the most important issue of digital equality we face.” A study of census data from the Associated Press showed that 18 percent of U.S. students do not have home access to broadband internet. Unsurprisingly, the homework gap hits hardest in rural America, according to a National Center for Education Statistics study. In the most remote regions where mountains get in the way, the number of homes with broadband access falls below 50 percent. While there’s been some progress in the past decade in getting broadband to rural America, closing the rural digital divide has a long way to go.
Kids are the ones who’ve played the greatest role in driving up broadband demand during the pandemic, according to recent research, but too many of America’s youth are being left out. If we as a nation do not solve this problem, children who may already be behind will lag even further. Pandemic or no pandemic, closing the homework gap must be national priority.
So, what can be done?
Congress took a major step forward in enacting the Broadband DATA Act, which charges the FCC with the responsibility of developing far more accurate maps that measure actual deployment of broadband throughout the country. The current maps significantly understate the extent of the digital divide by treating all households in a given census block as having broadband access even if only one household in the census block has a broadband connection. Any effort to undertake a serious closing of the digital divide and, therefore, the homework gap, begins with better broadband mapping, which will bring unserved areas more clearly into focus.
It’s now up to Congress to provide full support for the FCC to do its job by investing about $65 million in ensuring that the maps are accurate and broadband deployment dollars go to the areas where they’re most needed.
Next, Congress needs to step up and allocate the necessary funding to reach unserved areas. The FCC has currently allocated $20 billion for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, but getting broadband to everyone is going to require significantly more. Some areas will be harder to reach than others, but all communities and all Americans deserve fast broadband service. Allocating this money through the FCC’s time-tested, technology-neutral reverse auction process is the most efficient way to get funding where it is most needed.
Private sector broadband deployments still represent the lion’s share of the work to close the digital divide – $80 billion was spent in 2018 alone – but for those areas that remain unserved because it is uneconomic for private-sector carriers to serve them and for those who simply can’t afford it, this national priority requires a national solution and can only be addressed by Congress.
Just as we have seen in fighting the pandemic, solving a problem this big requires unified command. Currently, the FCC manages a patchwork of programs that promote broadband deployment. Unifying all efforts under a single program, guided by better mapping that awards funding through a reverse auction process, is a better formula for success.
The classroom has gone virtual for many of America’s children, but for others, it’s simply gone. Let’s give all of America’s youth the opportunity to learn, regardless of whether school is in session.
Rick Boucher was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 28 years and chaired the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and the Internet; he is honorary chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance and an attorney in the Washington, D.C., office of the law firm Sidley Austin.
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