Now that the school year is underway, at least in most states and municipalities, the vital nature of the internet to our everyday lives is again at the forefront. Most schools are kicking off the year on remote platforms amid the coronavirus pandemic.
This comes at a time when almost 20 percent of Americans who own a smartphone do not have basic, fixed broadband connections at home. Internet usage has become an essential service and usage has increased by up to 25 percent while the country continues to social distance and adapt to a new normal. For many underserved communities, the lack of broadband services is holding students back, and these communities are finding themselves on the wrong side of the growing “digital divide” — the gap in access to communication technologies.
Although the pandemic has quietly highlighted the many strengths in our communications systems, this growing gap has also been a troubling element. Roughly 12 million American students live in homes without broadband connections — and in many cases, these students come from lower-income Hispanic and other minority households. These communities will fall behind academically if they are unable to access online learning platforms and classroom resources. While many households in underserved communities struggle to remain connected, wireless networks and innovative technology are increasingly popular solutions to households lacking a reliable broadband connection.
A study from Pew Research Center estimates that 25 percent of Hispanic adults are smartphone-dependent, meaning they have wireless connectivity, but lack a basic broadband connection. This shows a strong need for robust internet spectrum availability. The best path forward is almost certainly an “all of the above” strategy to strengthen both wired and wireless networks.
Fortunately, the Federal Communications Commission has been working on just with initiatives like the 5G Fast Plan, reducing regulatory burdens, and new congressional funding from the CARES Act to enable remote education and telehealth services.
In terms of wireless networks, 2020 has brought forward the ongoing race to 5G, for which the FCC spectrum auctions are crucial to staying on the right track. Recently, the FCC concluded the first mid-band 5G spectrum auction, centered on 3.5GHz, with gross proceeds exceeding $4.5 billion. Coming later this year will be the crucial C-band auction to repurpose satellite spectrum for consumer wireless use.
These auctions are not only a great opportunity to put spectrum to its highest and best use but also a potential revenue-generator for the U.S. Treasury to help support additional steps to close the digital divide. The C-band auction in particular will bring in new revenue while also providing critical infrastructure for American wireless companies. It is essential that this auction, scheduled for December, stay on track.
While there is still a significant amount of progress to be made, it is important to also emphasize the success of America’s wireless networks, which were put to the ultimate test from the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. A recent CTIA study found that COVID-19 drove significant increases in wireless demand, with mobile data traffic up nearly 20 percent. Additionally, one national provider saw a 1,200 percent increase in online collaboration tools and an educational app saw traffic surge nearly 150 percent.
The success of our networks, some of the world’s most resilient, during the massive surge in activity can be attributed to the billions of dollars that are annually invested into the wireless industry’s network infrastructure.
As our networks continue to provide a measure of relief to Americans during the ongoing pandemic, it is important to acknowledge that some communities are still struggling to secure broadband services. Millions of Americans in underserved communities who depend on wireless networks must be recognized by policymakers to ensure they have mobile access for work, education, and other uses. While wireless alone will not ensure Americans stay connected, students specifically are falling further behind and are struggling to keep up with their peers in the classroom.
These families look to policymakers to advance wireless network capabilities and increase infrastructure capabilities. Policymakers should continue to support a fast-track to a nationwide 5G rollout to safeguard wireless connections to bridge the digital divide.
Mario H. Lopez is the president of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a national advocacy organization dedicated to strengthening working families by advancing public policy solutions that foster liberty, opportunity and prosperity.
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