Despite incredible efforts to develop a vaccine, it is reasonable to expect the devastating impacts of the coronavirus to continue into the future. In order to weather the recession and establish stronger growth, our leaders must pursue bold thinking and innovative policies that permit activities to be conducted more securely in the duration of the pandemic. Closing the digital divide should be part of such efforts. Expanding the ability to work remotely, learn online, and conduct health care with telemedicine will be critical for the economy in the second half of the year and beyond.
As I have written elsewhere, our powerful infrastructure is no accident. It is the product of decades of bipartisan policies which stimulated private sector investment, along with the light regulatory approach, that allowed technology to flourish. In the early months of the pandemic, online traffic surged while our networks demonstrated the speed and the resilience for consumers to remain connected to their communities, work from home, stay educated, buy necessities, have virtual doctor appointments.
Despite such success in the face of a historic crisis, the digital divide and hurdles to broadband persist. According to the Federal Communications Commission, 18 million people lack broadband internet, which includes a fifth of rural Americans. Moreover, survey evidence indicates the need for broadband has risen in the minds of Americans. Today it is considered as critical during the recession as access to health care and the potential for pay cuts. Broadband infrastructure also allows people to work from home to preserve the economy for households and the nation as a whole.
Closely related, but an even more significant problem, is the “homework gap” that many students face. School districts across the country plan to operate remotely for all or part of the time starting in the fall. Even before the pandemic, reliable internet access was essential to so many students. According to a recent analysis by Pew Research Center, about 60 percent of students use the internet to do their homework outside school.
Further, connected students are more likely to check their grades, look up class information, and collaborate with peers than unconnected students, according to a research report by the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society. But responses of school districts to the pandemic have increased the stakes on such differential access to the internet. The ability of future generations to maximize their potential and contribute to society and the economy certainly depends on addressing issues in connectivity.
The coronavirus has also made clear that telemedicine is here to stay, as more people have virtual doctor appointments. The federal government found that over 40 percent of Medicare primary care visits were indeed conducted online in the spring, compared to less than 1 percent before the coronavirus. Beyond the convenience, telemedicine allows a major sector of the economy to continue operating with the pandemic.
Officials understand the importance of telemedicine now more than ever. The Federal Communications Commission had disbursed $200 million to hundreds of applicants, but the funds have already run out. Telemedicine platforms with high volumes of patients have had long waits and website crashes. More must be done to make telemedicine a viable alternative for Americans, notably in rural areas where adoption lags. Telemedicine will take reliable connections for patients and doctors to maximize potential. These efforts will need further investment in digital infrastructure.
The most critical elements of the recession have been a sharp drop in the use for health services, inability to occupy offices, and the need to juggle the roles of employee, teacher, and parent. As Congress negotiates terms of the next relief package, it would do well to consider the importance of internet connectivity. Inaction risks a missed opportunity for building our resilience now and improving our ability to compete in the future.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin is president of the American Action Forum. He served as the director for the Congressional Budget Office under President Bush.