High price of broadband keeps people offline during pandemic

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“I’ve wanted to be online for years,” says the 65, but “I have to pay my rent, buy my food – there were other things that were important.”

For as long as the internet has been around, there has been a wedge between those who have it and those who don’t, with the stakes rising for those stuck on the wrong side of America. “persistent digital divide. This is one of the reasons why, from the first days of his presidential campaign, Joe Biden promised to make universal broadband a priority.

But Biden’s pledge has taken on added urgency due to the pandemic. Covid-19 has created many inequalities, including the “lack of homeworkWho threatened to leave low-income students behind as schools went online, as well as access to health care, unemployment benefits, court appearances, and – more and more – the covid-19 vaccine, all of which require (or are facilitated by) Internet connections.

However, Biden’s ability to bridge the gap depends on how he defines the problem. Is this a solution that can be fixed with more infrastructure or that requires social programs to address the affordability and adoption gaps?

The hidden divide

For years, the digital divide has been seen as a largely rural problem, and billions of dollars have been spent expanding broadband infrastructure and funding telecommunications companies to reach more remote and underserved areas. This lingering focus on the rural-urban divide has left people like Marvis Phillips – who struggle with affordability of Internet services, not proximity – out of the loop.

And at the start of the pandemic, the continuing impact of the digital divide was strongly attracted by the shift from schools to online education. Images of students forced to sit in restaurant parking lots Access to free WiFi so that they can take their courses over the Internet has helped to understand the extent of the digital divide in America.

The Federal Communications Commission has taken action, asking Internet service providers to sign a voluntary pledge to keep services running and forgive late fees. The FCC has not released data on how many people have benefited from the pledge, but has received hundreds of complaints that the program is not working as intended.

Five hundred pages of these complaints were published last year after a request for public records from the Daily Dot. Among them was a mother who explained that the pandemic was forcing her to make an impossible choice.

“It’s not just about the number of people who have lost the Internet because they cannot afford it. We believe that a lot more people cannot afford the Internet, but are sacrificing other necessities. “

“I have four boys who are all in school and need the internet to do their schoolwork online,” she writes. Her line was disconnected despite a promise that it would not be deactivated due to non-payment. “I paid my bill for $ 221.00 to activate my services. It was the last money I had and I have no more money to do the grocery shopping for the week.

Other posts spoke of the need to forgo food, diapers and other necessities in order to keep families connected for schoolwork and jobs.

“It’s not just the number of people who have lost the Internet because they cannot afford it,” says Dana Floberg, politician for consumer organization Free Press. “We believe that a much larger number of people … cannot afford the Internet but are sacrificing other necessities.”

According to Ann Veigle, spokesperson for the FCC, these complaints are passed on to suppliers, who are “required to respond in writing to the FCC and the consumer within 30 days.” She did not respond to questions about whether service providers shared reports or results with the FCC, how many low-income internet and phone subscribers benefited from the engagement, or any other program result.

The lack of data has been part of a larger problem with the FCC’s approach, says Floberg, since former President Ajit Pai reclassified the Internet from a utility, like electricity, to a “utility.” less regulated ‘information’. She sees the restoration of the FCC regulator as the “linchpin” towards the “equitable and universal access and affordability” of broadband Internet, increasing competition and, therefore, increasing competition. resulting in better service and lower prices.

Measure the wrong things

It took Marvis Phillips three months of free internet, two months of one-on-one training, and two free iPads – upgraded during the pandemic to accommodate Zoom and telehealth calls – to get connected. And since the city has ordered people to stay in their homes to prevent the spread of the virus, Phillips says the internet has become its “lifeline.”

“Loneliness and social isolation are … a problem of social justice and poverty,” says Cathy Michalec, executive director of Little Brothers-Friends of the Elderly, the nonprofit that helped Phillips thrive. connect as part of its mission to serve low-income seniors. . As with other solutions to isolation – bus fare to visit a park, tickets to a museum – internet connections also require financial resources that many older people do not have.

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