The COVID-19 pandemic has made something clear that the members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have known for a long time: millions of families in the United States do not have access to affordable, reliable broadband internet connections.
The frontline workers that our unions represent have done a heroic job responding to this crisis. Every day they are out there keeping people connected, teaching our children, and providing health care and essential public services.
But technicians can’t install high-speed internet service for households without fiber optic cable in their neighborhoods. Teachers can’t keep children who cannot access online materials engaged and learning. Health care workers can’t provide telemedicine services to patients who lack broadband or can’t get a reliable cell phone connection. Any plan for reopening our society and keeping it functional as we navigate life in a post-COVID-19 world will require increased connectivity for students, working people and first responders alike.
We are calling on Congress to support these workers, their families, and our communities by making affordable, universal access to high-speed broadband a priority in our response to this pandemic. Last week we sent a letter to congressional leaders urging them to fund broadband infrastructure expansion, create an emergency connectivity fund for schools and libraries administered through the FCC’s E-Rate program, and direct the FCC to create an emergency broadband benefit for low-income households to cover the cost of adequate broadband service. We are pleased to see that the HEROES Act recently passed by the House includes funding for E-Rate and for low-income broadband access, but more work still remains to be done to improve our infrastructure and extend connectivity to millions of families who currently lack it.
A recent FCC report conservatively estimated that about 6 percent of Americans, and nearly one-fourth of the population in rural areas, lack access to internet service at the minimum speed requirements to be considered broadband. That means at least 18 million people in the United States are unable to subscribe to home internet service. This is unacceptable at the best of times.
Even where broadband connections are available, use and adoption remain below optimal levels -- and this is particularly true for low-income, African American, Latino and Native American communities. This is an issue of access, but also of affordability. According to the most recent census data, 15 percent of people in the United States do not have a wired broadband connection. For low-income households earning $20,000 or less per year the picture is far worse, with 37 percent lacking a wired broadband connection.
Home broadband access for communities of color continues to lag behind the rest of the country. According to a recent Pew report, 34 percent of African Americans and 39 percent of the Latino community do not have a wired connection. The Census Bureau recently found that Native Americans are the least connected population with 33 percent lacking a broadband subscription and 47 percent of those living on tribal lands lacking access.
With millions of people across the country out of work and in a financial crunch, the number of households that cannot afford internet service will grow and compound the long-term damage to our country from this pandemic. High-speed broadband connections help bring us together when we have to stay physically distant and provide a gateway to jobs, education, health care, public services and civic participation.
Reliable and affordable broadband allows more Americans to comply with national stay-at-home guidelines and local orders, which will mean a faster end to the outbreak. It provides telehealth for everyone—particularly seniors and veterans. All levels of education and training will rely on at least some element of remote learning for the foreseeable future, because even when schools reopen, staggered schedules and considerations for special populations might require that some learning still happen remotely: dependable internet access is essential for students to be meaningfully engaged.
Everyone in the country has felt the impact of this global public health crisis, but people of color, low-income families, and rural areas are particularly affected, leaving our nation’s most vulnerable communities struggling to stay connected with school, work, health care, entertainment and their loved ones. The digital divide is not new and it is long past time we close it.
The funding for E-Rate and for a low-income broadband benefit included in the HEROES Act is an excellent first step. But we must build on this work. Congress should pass a robust broadband infrastructure plan, with necessary protections for workers to ensure good jobs, to improve our networks and expand connectivity to the millions of families without it.
As we persevere through the current public health and economic crises, and begin to recover from them, our elected leaders must recognize the urgent need to transform our nation. It's time to ensure affordable, high-speed broadband access, as well as access to health care for everyone, unimpeded voting rights and the opportunity to join a union no matter where you work. The time for bold action is now.
Chris Shelton is president of Communications Workers of America, Randi Weingarten is president of American Federation of Teachers and Mary Kay Henry is President of Service Employees International Union.