By Bruce Mehlman
September 10, 2020 at 5:00 am ET
For most of us, it’s hard to imagine having spent the last six months without access to reliable, high-speed broadband internet. But for at least 18 million Americans, that’s been their everyday reality – limited options for staying in touch with family and friends, lost work opportunities, no connectivity for distance learning and no way to benefit from telehealth visits.
The urgent need to close the “Digital Divide” by filling the gaps in high-speed internet access – in terms of availability, affordability and accessibility – came through loud and clear in a new Morning Consult poll of American voters, commissioned by the Internet Innovation Alliance. Over 90 percent said that the current lack of universal broadband access is a problem, with 63 percent calling it a “major” problem. Three in five American voters (62 percent) want Congress to fix the problem “immediately.”
Broadband has become increasingly important over the past 20 years, but what is finally pushing this change to the top of the list of priorities? According to IIA’s poll, it’s the challenges arising from the pandemic and, in particular, the impact of distance learning, as more than 55 million students and teachers have moved to distance learning at least part time. Twelve million students are without home broadband, according to the Senate Joint Economic Committee (15 million, according to Common Sense Media), which means that more than one-fifth of students are falling behind their digitally enabled peers.
Roughly three-quarters of voters (76 percent) say the lack of broadband access for distance learning is a “major” problem, while another 19 percent say it is a “minor” problem. That’s 95 percent who agree it is a problem. And with nearly every student in America back in “school” as of this week, it’s one that must be addressed now. In the world’s greatest nation, in the 21st century, no child should be left offline.
Backing the inclusion of broadband funding in the recovery and rebuilding legislation, nine out of 10 American voters support Congress’ using federal funds to expand broadband internet network infrastructure to reach those living in areas not currently serviced by a broadband internet provider, with three out of five American voters (62 percent) wanting this “immediately.” Nearly as many American voters (88 percent) support Congress creating new programs and increasing federal funding for existing programs that either partially subsidize or fully cover broadband internet access to those who cannot currently afford it, with 62 percent wanting that to happen “immediately.” That’s an overwhelming majority saying that Congress should act, and act now.
What does action mean? A series of steps need to be taken right away. Congress should start by fully funding the Broadband DATA Act, so unserved areas are identified with greater granularity and federal dollars can be targeted with precision to households that lack broadband access. Then Congress should appropriate the tens of billions of dollars needed to connect unserved areas, mostly in rural America. The Lifeline Program, which provides to low-income families a monthly subsidy that can be used toward broadband services, should be modernized and maximized as well. Rather than keeping service providers as middlemen, the benefit should be provided directly to consumers via a debit card, similar to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, so recipients can choose among the full range of available telecom services that best meet their needs.
Americans not only understand the problem — many are even willing to dig into their own pockets to solve it. Over half (55 percent) of Americans say they would pay a little more to help those who cannot otherwise afford broadband access. The same (56 percent) goes for those living in areas that otherwise would not have access due to lack of availability. Think about that: More than half of Americans said, amid a deep economic downturn with grave uncertainty about the future, that they’re willing to open their wallets to help other Americans get broadband. Clearly, Americans understand how important reaching the goal of universal broadband is to our economy and to our society. If the federal government partners with private industry, we can finally get the job done.
It’s election season, Congress. Listen to Americans – their vote is for broadband.
Bruce Mehlman is co-chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance.
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