FCC commissioner, House Democrat call for expanding broadband access during pandemic

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A top federal regulator and a House Democrat said Wednesday that the U.S. government needs to help expand internet access to more households as the coronavirus pandemic exposes significant gaps in coverage.

Speaking at a virtual event hosted by The Hill, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly (R) said that while many classrooms, doctor’s offices and workplaces have moved online, about 20 million Americans don’t have broadband.

“COVID-19 didn’t bring this issue upon us, but it’s made it more prominent,” O’Rielly said at The Vir{tech}tual World Ahead event, sponsored by Nokia.

O’Rielly told The Hill’s Editor-at-Large Steve Clemons, who was moderating the event, that lack of equipment and affordability are the main obstacles for households who aren’t able to log on.

Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), co-chair of the Women’s High Tech Caucus, also emphasized the need for connectivity, even for jobs that can’t be done online.

“The situation we’re in across the country has really highlighted how critical it is that we provide technology access, and particularly broadband,” she said.

The first coronavirus relief package passed by Congress included $125 million for the Rural Utilities Service, but advocates and lawmakers say much more support is needed to close large gaps in connectivity.

Democratic lawmakers in both chambers have introduced legislation that would allocate resources for a fund at the FCC to disburse funds to schools and libraries to buy Wi-Fi hotspots, routers and internet-connected devices.

DelBene said Wednesday that those sorts of efforts should continue after the pandemic subsides.

She also stressed that passing consumer data privacy legislation is important to fighting the pandemic to ensure consumers feel safe.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have introduced data privacy legislation focused on the coronavirus pandemic, but none has received bipartisan support.

“We absolutely need to be able to make sure technologies… are upholding their promise to consumers and one area I think is critically important is consumer data privacy,” DelBene said.

Wednesday’s event also featured Michael Hinojosa, superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District; Francella Ochillo, executive director of the advocacy group Next Century Cities; and Jason Oxman, president and CEO of the Information Technology Industry Council.

Hinojosa, who has taken aggressive steps to ensure Dallas-area students have internet access while taking classes online, described connectivity as a social justice issue.

That point was emphasized by Ochillo, who called for “every stakeholder at the table” to get involved with expanding access to the internet.

Oxman said the pandemic has highlighted the crucial role internet connectivity plays in everyday life.

“Broadband is the critical infrastructure of the day,” he said.

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