Access to broadband may be one of the defining issues of our time

A sign advertising high-speed internet lays against a street sign in New Market, Tenn., March 25, 2020. Much of this rural Tennessee community does not have access to broadband internet. CNS photo/Caitie McMekin, News Sentinel via Reuters

WASHINGTON (CNS) — About 25 years ago, the World Wide Web was becoming a “thing.” By the time of the new millennium, growing numbers of Americans were sending e-mails (with a hyphen) over the capital “I” Internet.

Today, a great deal of the United States is connected online via more powerful devices than were even thought of a couple of decades ago, tapping into speedier networks with greater capacity to transmit information and data. As many people may be reading this story online as may read it in a newspaper.

However, far from all in the United States enjoy the access to broadband that hundreds of millions take for granted, and the deepening digital divide may turn out to be one of the defining issues of our time.

Want a job? What if you have to apply for it online, and you can’t?

The coronavirus pandemic showed the yawning gaps in the U.S. digital infrastructure, as millions of students just faded away from their teachers’ virtual classrooms because they had no broadband access. Sure, there may have been weekly activity packets that parents could pick up from school, but it was a modern-day recurrence of the “separate but unequal” school policies that were supposed to have been swept away by the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision — in 1954.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Catholic Educational Association were just two of 60 national organizations that asked top congressional leaders in late April to back a bill, the Emergency Educational Connections Act, that would appropriate $4 billion for an emergency connectivity fund administered through the Federal Communications Commission’s “E-Rate” program, for schools and libraries to support distance and remote learning for millions of students without home internet access,a situation exacerbated by the COVID-19 emergency.

Corey Williams, who had advocated for tech-equity issues prior to her current job as a lobbyist for the National Education Association, said estimates showed 8 million-12 million students from kindergarten through 12th grade were unable to participate in online learning. She added her hopes $4 billion may be appended to the HEROES Act, a stimulus bill that was passed by the House but now awaits action in the Senate.

The $4 billion, she said, could cover about 8 million students. What’s more, according to Williams, the money can be accessed by both public and nonpublic schools.

Williams is the co-chair of an informal “homework gap” coalition that includes the 60 organizational signatories as its members.

Under E-Rate, the school district or individual school applies for funds, but it — not the FCC — makes decisions at the local level as how to best close the homework gap. Sometimes it’s devices, sometimes it’s hotspots, sometimes it’s a simple internet connection that the family couldn’t have afforded. “In some places, the only solution is satellite,” Williams said.

“A smartphone is not what I consider sufficient to do homework,” she added. “It’s tough to write a paper or do research on a mobile phone.”

“I’m from rural Iowa,” Williams told Catholic News Service. “My brother and my four nieces lives eight miles outside of town and they don’t have broadband to their house. They cannot get it. … They can use a hotspot, use a mobile phone to turn it into a hotspot. Then there are others who can’t even get hot spots, no service whatever, because it hasn’t been built.”

“For our members, I would say a third” of them lack broadband access, said Layla Soberanis, a senior government relations representative for the National Farmers Union. “A lot of them have to walk to a certain point (to get access). Either they have to go to their local drugstore in their area, or walk all the way down to the main road. A lot of them, especially now, don’t even have access to watch Netflix.”

“Everything is (moving) so fast,” Soberanis added. “If they do not have these points of connectivity, they miss a lot.”

Based in Washington, “we’re all digital, we’re all electronic, we’re all working with Zoom and other media platforms to connect to each other,” she said. “I think Congress is realizing … the workday will probably change. The issue has definitely picked up in the past couple of weeks,” adding the National Farmers Union is itself in a number of coalitions to push the issue forward and to work with the FCC on expanding broadband access.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in Minnesota are proposing allocating more money to meet broadband needs, although the demand is likely to outstrip the added availability based on the figures bandied about.

Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, in a June 3 letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, asked if the FCC could accelerate its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) Phase I auction, set for October, which will distribute $20.4 billion over 10 years to support broadband deployment in unserved areas.

The FCC estimates 18.3 million-21 million Americans lack access to fixed broadband. “I have heard from a number of Mississippi broadband providers that are ready to begin deploying in unserved areas, but cannot act until they receive this critical support,” Wicker told Pai. “This situation is not unique to Mississippi.”

“We’re in a world where it is so much harder to get by without the web. And yet the digital divide won’t disappear once this crisis is over. The ever-quickening march to digitization has become a sprint,” said Sir Tim Berners-Lee, co-founder of the World Wide Web Foundation, in an essay in The Guardian, a British national daily newspaper.

Worldwide, “we must make sure those currently in the slow lane have the means to catch up. Otherwise billions will be left behind in the dust.” Berners-Lee said. “As COVID-19 forces huge change to our lives, we have an opportunity for big, bold action that recognizes that, as with electricity in the last century and postal services before that, the web is an essential utility that governments and business should combine to deliver as a basic right.”