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Stick to Principle: Connect Our Kids

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 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of April 20-24, 2020

Kevin Taglang
Taglang

If you are old enough to recall the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, you may get the wisp of a smile when I mention section 254. In the legislation, overwhelmingly approved by both Republicans and Democrats, section 254 ordered the Federal Communications Commission to base policies for the preservation and advancement of universal service on principles including:

  • Quality services should be available at just, reasonable, and affordable rates.
  • Access to broadband should be provided in all regions of the Nation.
  • Consumers in all regions of the Nation, including low-income consumers and those in rural, insular, and high-cost areas, should have access to broadband that is reasonably comparable to broadband provided in urban areas and that is available at rates that are reasonably comparable to rates charged for similar services in urban areas.
  • Elementary and secondary schools and classrooms, health care providers, and libraries should have access to affordable broadband for educational purposes.

Recognizing the importance of the internet, building the information infrastructure, and making it available to everyone, one elected official articulated the goals of section 254 like this:

Twenty years ago, when I first had the opportunity to serve in the United States House of Representatives I dreamed of a time when a young schoolgirl in Carthage, Tennessee — my home town, 2000 people — could come home after school and plug into the Library Congress and navigate through a whole universe of knowledge at her own pace, directed by her own curiosity. I dreamed of a time when the nation’s children would be able to communicate daily with students in countries all over the world, to learn about other cultures, share experiences, broaden their horizons. I dreamed of a time when a doctor would have instant access to a patient’s medical records instantly if an injury occurred and that patient’s doctor needed to know the best course of treatment.

The language in that fourth bullet grew into the FCC’s schools and libraries universal service support program. (Last week, we looked at how the program could be used now to connect millions of disconnected students to online classrooms.) And the language also became the basis of the FCC’s Rural Health Care Program, which provides funding to eligible health care providers for broadband services necessary for the provision of health care. 

The Rural Health Care Program got a big boost in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (or CARES Act). The FCC received $200 million to ensure access to connected care services and devices in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and surge in demand for connected care services. The support is meant to help eligible health care providers purchase telecommunications services, information services, and devices necessary to provide critical connected care services, whether for treatment of coronavirus or other health conditions during the coronavirus pandemic. 

The schools and libraries universal service support program, however, has yet to get a similar boost. Over 55 million K-12 students are currently sheltering in place while trying to continue their educations. But millions don’t have broadband access in their homes so they can’t connect to online classrooms. 

Monica Goldson, the chief executive of Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland, said today that her district administration knew that its biggest challenge of educating amid a global pandemic would be getting students access to lessons without physical access to schools. The school district is home to more than 136,500 students82,000 receive free and reduced-price meals — an indication of limited resources at home that may extend to a child’s internet access. For these students and families, many of whom struggle to make ends meet in a stable economy, distance learning online is not an option. From the local perspective, Goldson’s recommendation is:

To bridge this digital divide, we need federal intervention. In the stimulus package signed into law, Congress failed to provide direct funding for distance learning. Future stimulus legislation must include funding for expanded broadband access, particularly with an enhanced E-Rate program for broadband access to schools and libraries.

Removing systematic barriers to education is a national emergency every day, but now the urgency is as great as ever before. In these trying times, we are already seeing what happens when we don’t answer the call when an alarm is sounded — or wait too long to act.

Goldson’s sense of urgency struck me profoundly. Last week, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai shared his guiding principles during the emergency.

“Number one, set clear priorities.” Noting the need for social distancing, “we decided that our top priority was to make sure that as many Americans as possible have Internet access.” In the same vein as Goldson’s urgency, Pai said, “During an emergency, act like it’s an emergency” — make decisions as quickly as possible. “We’re talking days, not months or years,” Chairman Pai said. He promised to “use every tool in the toolkit,” pointing to the FCC’s universal service programs. He also noted that the agency’s examination of its own programs “highlight[s] the importance of having pre-existing programs in place to close the digital divides that exist in our communities. These are the communities that are most vulnerable during emergencies, and it is much easier to scale up existing programs than start from scratch during an emergency.”

As noted last week, the E-rate could be employed now to start connecting at-home students to online classrooms. The Boulder Valley School District and broadband provider Live Wire Networks are demonstrating how to do it. 

As it considers additional responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress should heed Chairman Pai’s advice: act quickly and decisively to make sure that as many Americans as possible have broadband access in their homes — and enhance existing programs rather than start from scratch. 

Connecting our kids to educational opportunities and connecting doctors with patients online are not radical new ideas. These are principles a Republican-led Congress enacted nearly 25 years ago. And this is no time to betray our principles — or our kids. 

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Upcoming Events

Apr 27 Consumer Advisory Committee Meeting (FCC)

Apr 28 Hot Topics (American Bar Association)

Apr 29 Will Telehealth Still Be Available After the Pandemic Is Over? (Information Technology & Innovation Foundation)

Apr 30 Next Century Cities | Federal Communications Commission Meeting (NCC)