Mar 12, 2020 - Technology
What Matters 2020

Coronavirus exposes the digital divide's toll

Illustration of hands reaching up to a dangling Ethernet cable.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As the coronavirus pushes more human activities online, it's forcing a reckoning with the often-invisible digital divide.

Why it matters: The virus crisis is offering vivid case studies of real-world, everyday harms that result from inequality between those who have access to and can afford high-speed internet, and those who cannot.

What's happening: Both the government and private sector are moving to online systems and operations, but not everyone in the U.S. can easily follow.

  • The 2020 Census will be "online first" this year, raising concerns that it could undercount Americans who lack internet access. Coronavirus could add to that worry, complicating backup plans to count people in person. (The census will also accept responses by phone or in the mail.)
  • Coronavirus is prompting schools and businesses to consider shifts to online-only classes and work, but not every district or company has that option.
  • An $8 billion emergency federal funding package allows Medicare to expand the use of telemedicine in response to the coronavirus outbreak — though that may not be much immediate help to people who can't get to a reliable internet connection.

What they're saying: "Coronavirus, without some immediate changes being made, is certainly going to exacerbate the haves and have nots for who's digitally connected," Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks told Axios.

  • Starks, a Democrat, wants to see his agency direct funds under the FCC's telecom subsidy programs toward helping serve connectivity needs laid bare by coronavirus.

By the numbers: The FCC estimates 21 million Americans don't have access to high-speed broadband, though that number could be higher due to problems with data collection.

  • According to the FCC's most recent report, the gap is largest on rural and Tribal lands — more than 26% of residents in rural areas and 32% on Tribal lands lack access.
  • However, an FCC spokesperson notes that the number of Americans without access to high-speed internet service fell by 30% during the first two years of the Trump administration as the FCC has subsidized deployment in areas of the country where it doesn't otherwise make financial sense for providers to build out their networks.
  • The FCC in January approved a plan to allocate $16 billion over 10 years to fund broadband deployment in unserved parts of the country.
  • The "urgency of connectivity" underscored by coronavirus "highlights the wisdom of our approach, which is to keep pressing forward as quickly as we can," Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr told Axios.

Yes, but: A key issue in closing the digital divide is accurately determining where there is and isn't broadband, something the FCC has struggled to do because its process for collecting connectivity and speed data has overstated broadband coverage.

What's next: Carr has championed a pilot program now under consideration at the FCC that would see the agency offer $100 million over three years to subsidize telehealth services for low-income users, underserved areas, and veterans. If successful, the program could be extended and given more funding.

  • The FCC already offers funding to connect rural hospitals and clinics to the internet, but the program, dubbed Connected Care, would provide an 85% discount on connections used for telehealth services to connect patients to their doctors, or to treat a range of health issues.
  • The FCC needs to vote to finalize and adopt the program, something Carr says he anticipates happening soon.
  • "There's a range of diagnoses, monitoring, treatments, discussions, consultations that telehealth can enable that can help people improve, while not unnecessarily bringing them into contact with others at a brick and mortar facility," Carr said.

But the agency's Democrats, Starks and Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, want to see the FCC do more to address immediate needs raised by the coronavirus crisis.

  • In Senate testimony this week, Rosenworcel said the FCC should be exploring how it can use its funding to help schools loan out Wi-Fi hotspots to students whose classes have shifted online.
  • Starks also offered a number of proposals, including creating additional Wi-Fi capacity to accommodate people working from home by temporarily authorizing the use of extra spectrum.

The bottom line: "We need to think creatively on how we're going to help the American people through a time of crisis," Starks told Axios. "I firmly believe that families are going to rely on connectivity in a way that they've never done before. And the FCC has to lead."

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