The coronavirus is shining a spotlight on the digital divide in America and stalled efforts to expand rural broadband as a way to help millions of students both during the pandemic and beyond.

With the explosion of virtual education, along with the proliferation of telehealth and the need to work from home as businesses adhere to health orders, the lack of high-speed internet is hitting rural communities the hardest.

Experts say the longtime debate on Capitol Hill over infrastructure spending to build out broadband is unlikely to be solved quickly, posing a significant challenge for students whose households and schools lack the connectivity of other parts of the country.

“Coronavirus has really shone the spotlight on something that we’ve been talking about for a really long time,” said Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association. “It’s a little bit of a ‘we’ve been telling you so’ moment, because I just feel like the last decade we’ve been talking to policymakers about how you build it out, what programs are important, what is working, how do you build a network that will be future-proof and robust enough to do all of the things you now see people doing.”

Congress has taken some action on boosting rural broadband to tackle education concerns, but legislation has yet to cross the finish line and make it to President Trump’s desk.

A House-passed coronavirus relief package in May, which the GOP-controlled Senate has declined to take up, would provide $4 billion in emergency broadband connectivity funding and other money for students and health care providers to access broadband. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he doesn’t want to include infrastructure spending in a coronavirus relief package.

House Democrats later unveiled a $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan in June, which would provide $100 billion for broadband. That measure has not been taken up in the Senate.

“Republicans haven’t been doing much to ensure connectivity during COVID. The House has already passed their bill that would ensure connectivity and it wasn’t even brought to a vote,” said Jenna Leventoff, senior policy counsel at Public Knowledge, which works to ensure everyone in the U.S. has access to affordable, high-quality broadband.

Nicol Turner Lee, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has argued that Congress must direct funding to bring broadband access to all public schools in the next coronavirus relief package before more vulnerable students get left behind.

She stressed that while millions of students didn’t have access to both the internet and a device to do remote education, low-income African Americans, Latinos and first-generation college students were more likely to have only one device at home that is shared among multiple siblings.

“To make distance learning work, vulnerable families need emergency broadband relief, which can be done through increased investments in home broadband, schools, and libraries,” she wrote in a recent essay.

CTIA, which represents the U.S. wireless communications industry, stressed the need for funding for equitable access to broadband.

“We urge Congress to prioritize the millions of students still learning remotely and ensure that any COVID-19 relief package includes funding for the FCC to ensure students have the devices and connections they need to succeed,” said Kelly Cole, CTIA senior vice president of government affairs, referring to the Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC said in May that 93.7 percent of Americans have broadband access, though critics have argued the methodology the agency uses underestimates that access. NCTA – The Internet & Television Association has said 86 percent of Americans have access to four or more broadband providers.

On improving those numbers, Bloomfield said congressional interest in the topic was much higher earlier on in the pandemic but has since subsided.

“For the first two months, everyone was like, ‘Wow, thank God I’ve got broadband.’ I worry a little bit that policymakers have taken their foot off the gas pedal and have just assumed, where it is, that’s great; where it’s not, it will come,” she said.

The Trump administration announced in June that the Department of Agriculture was investing $86 million in rural broadband service for eight states.

Christopher Yoo, a professor of law, communication, computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, said the pandemic has spotlighted the need for a comprehensive action plan to support education.

“The easy issue to see is that students need connectivity. But in addition, teachers need a high level of connectivity to support their students. Administrators need management systems to communicate with teachers and for teachers to input their grades,” Yoo said.

He added that teachers and students also need different types of training on virtual learning and systems need new security and privacy protocols.

The private sector has taken some steps to bolster broadband access during the pandemic.

In March and April, T-Mobile put connectivity solutions in place for more than 775,000 students across more than 1,600 schools and school districts nationwide for remote learning. It announced earlier this month a $10.7 billion initiative aimed at delivering free internet connectivity to millions of underserved student households through partnerships with schools and school districts.

But any significant funding to fill in the rural broadband gaps would likely come from Washington.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s plan for rural America includes investing $20 billion in rural broadband infrastructure, and President Trump has often expressed interest in pursuing a major infrastructure package, though no progress has been made in the past four years.

Yoo argued, though, that infrastructure hasn’t been enough of a focus on the campaign trail.

“During the last presidential election, the candidates from both parties talked about investments in infrastructure. Unfortunately, we did not see strong interest from either side of the aisle following that. Investing in infrastructure would be a terrific way to support the economy. It not only spends money but also lays the foundation for future growth and future jobs,” he said.

“But the discussions today have not been particularly strategic with how to intervene during the pandemic,” he added.

Complicating matters in some ways is the embrace of 5G technology, which has been lumped in with the debate over how to provide rural broadband. Experts like Yoo worry, however, that the new technology in and of itself would be an ineffective solution.

“Many policy advocates have used the pandemic as an occasion to push their favorite policy intervention. For example, 5G is sometimes regarded as a panacea, but it is not likely to increase connectivity in rural areas because of the short distances associated with the technology,” Yoo said.

While major broadband expansion may be months or even years down the line, depending on which party wins the White House and controls the Senate starting in 2021, Bloomfield is hopeful that the new school year will bring with it some momentum and pressure on lawmakers, most of whom are in their districts and hearing from constituents who are struggling with connectivity problems.

“I think that when they are home, which they are, this is what they hear. It is the parents of those school kids basically being like, what am I going to do? I can’t keep taking my kids to the McDonald’s parking lot,” she said.

Updated at 2:58 p.m.

Tags Broadband access Donald Trump Education Future of Education Joe Biden Mitch McConnell rural broadband

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