During coronavirus, high-speed internet is a lifesaver — that millions lack

We are neglecting those Americans, mostly in rural and poor households, for whom staying home is devastating because they have no broadband access.
Image: RURAL AND POOR AMERICANS WITHOUT INTERNET ARE BEING FORGOTTEN
High-speed internet is no longer a privilege; it’s a necessity. Yet many in rural America and poor households lack it.Adrian Lam / NBC News
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By Tom Ferree, chairman and chief executive officer of Connected Nation

“I’m in dire straits. I need help,” the heartbreaking message went. “I need to be able to work.”

It was from a young woman from a small town in Texas who lives paycheck to paycheck and had been told this week that she had to work remotely because of the coronavirus. To do that, she needed to be able to get online from home.

The situation is putting a spotlight on what needs to be done — urgently — to close the digital divide.

She turned in desperation to our nonprofit, Connected Nation, which works to expand the availability of broadband (high-speed) internet, because she is one of 18 million Americans who lack such access. To make matters worse, her traditional fallbacks, such as public libraries, are also off-limits because of the pandemic.

While many of us reacted to the news that we need to “socially distance” by raiding the grocery store, plopping on the couch and turning on our computers, we are neglecting those Americans for whom staying home is devastating because they have no high-speed internet. They can’t work, or connect their children to online schooling, or hold video sessions with faraway friends and family, or shop online, or entertain themselves through streaming, or do many of the other basic things connected households are able to manage during this crisis.

The situation is putting a spotlight on what needs to be done — urgently — to close the digital divide. Our organization has long advocated for everyone to be connected because it’s no longer a privilege; it’s a necessity.

Vulnerable and rural populations are disproportionately affected by the lack of connectivity. Right now, 45 percent of low-income families and approximately a quarter of rural communities do not have access to broadband. In the case of the young woman from Texas, she can’t get a provider to service her home even though she lives only about a half hour from San Antonio, one of the largest cities in the country. The problem is widespread because service providers often find that the cost of extending service to more remote locations isn’t likely to be recouped. Other frequent barriers are affordability and lack of digital literacy.

The ramifications in these uncertain times are mind-boggling.

You may have heard of the Homework Gap, the phenomenon whereby 12 million schoolchildren don’t have sufficient internet access at home to finish the assignments handed out in class. Many, especially in rural communities, rely on libraries or even fast-food restaurants with wireless access. If you’d visited any small town in America just a week ago, you would have likely seen kids doing their homework at a local McDonalds or Arby’s.

What’s happening now is much worse: We’re moving to a School Day Gap. Children without internet access are getting no instruction at all now that schools across the country have closed. Depending on how long we find ourselves in this situation, this gap could affect their lives for years to come and even pose a generational problem if solutions aren’t found.

Or consider our senior citizens — many of whom were already living somewhat isolated lives. They are now being told not to interact with others at all because they are in a high-risk group. If they had better access to the internet, they could alleviate the heightened sense of disconnectedness through social media, video chatting and more.

And there is a direct coronavirus impact on internet-deficient populations as well. Just this week, the Trump administration lifted regulations on Medicare to allow reimbursement for telehealth applications. These can be used to diagnose someone’s risk level for coronavirus from afar, making it easier to quarantine those who are potentially infected, as well as alleviate some of the strain the health care system is experiencing. This was a proactive and positive step, but it will not address the millions of Americans who currently do not have access to the internet.

These are some of the people being denied the resources and help they need at this critical juncture. From our point of view, this problem has gone on for far too long — since well before coronavirus reached American shores. Connected Nation’s staff has for years worked at the local, state and federal level to identify solutions for connecting more people and helping them adopt broadband, including promoting more affordable service.

As a country, we’ve made some progress in the last year. Our lawmakers have recognized the need to expand internet access to rural communities — providing grants and loans through the USDA’s ReConnect Program and the recently announced Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which seeks to inject billions more into the deployment of this vital infrastructure to rural America. And, just last week, the Senate passed the Broadband DATA Act, a bipartisan effort that seeks to improve the current Federal Communications Commission’s maps showing where broadband coverage is lacking.

No child, no senior citizen, no farmer, no small business owner, no one, should be left without the access they need to enjoy the resources that can improve their lives.

The ReConnect Program and digital opportunity fund provide money for projects that will extend internet service in rural areas that are unserved or underserved. Those projects are partly approved based on need. However, the current FCC maps often overstate coverage, meaning places that are not connected are shown as having service.

With this legislation we should see improved, more accurate broadband coverage maps and, therefore, smarter investments in areas with the greatest need. As we move forward, there needs to be a nationwide emphasis on improving access for areas that are underserved.

No child, no senior citizen, no farmer, no small business owner, no one, should be left without the access they need to enjoy the resources that can improve their lives, much less sustain daily life in our new normal. Everyone deserves to be connected.