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COVID-19 Illustrates Need to Close the Digital Divide

June 17, 2021


As the United States marks one year of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in more than 600,000 deaths and a historic economic recession, the Network has joined with public health law partners to produce a report offering a new assessment, by 50 top legal experts, on the U.S. policy response to the crisis. This new report, COVID-19 Policy Playbook: Legal Recommendations for a Safer, More Equitable Future, presents a timely examination of policy challenges and opportunities in light of the pandemic and offers concrete suggestions for immediate and long-term changes to better serve the health of the nation.

In this Q&A, Betsy Lawton, senior staff attorney at the Network’s Northern Region Office, discusses some of the key elements in the chapter she authored, “COVID-19 Illustrates Need to Close the Digital Divide.”

Q: Can you summarize the impacts you outline in your chapter that the lack of access to reliable broadband services during the pandemic has had on many American households?

The COVID-19 pandemic has influenced nearly every aspect of life. With the U.S. Covid-19 response largely premised on staying home to stay safe, individuals that lack home broadband were left behind, without access to online economic opportunities, educational resources, and healthcare.  Individuals without home broadband are unable to access opportunities to remain healthy, including education, jobs and job opportunities, telehealth services, mental health services, social supports, civic engagement, and disaster and emergency preparedness information.

Q: What measures do you provide in your chapter that federal, state and local governments can take to close the digital divide?

Recommendations for closing the digital divide include policy changes at the federal, state and local level to expand broadband infrastructure and make broadband more affordable for many families that cannot afford a monthly subscription fee.  Recent digital inclusion and affordability programs included in the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act are key stepping-stones to bridging the digital divide, but most of these programs are temporary or will expire in the next few years. Permanent actions to promote equal access to broadband are needed, and could include leveraging the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) programs to increase affordability and expand infrastructure, increase FCC oversight, and focusing resources on state and local programs to increase competition and create local network availability.

The FCC’s Universal Service Fund (USF) programs are meant to ensure that households in the U.S. have access to, and can afford, telephone and broadband services. Significant funding has been committed in recent years to expand broadband infrastructure to disconnected areas of the country. The FCC can also leverage its USF programs to help make home broadband more affordable by increasing the Lifeline discount provided to low-income subscribers from $9.25/month to $50/month (similar to the $50/month Emergency Broadband Benefit included in the 2021 Consolidated Appropriations Act), making it more likely than low individual households can afford the monthly subscription fee.  The FCC could also tackle educational inequities stemming from the digital divide by authorizing schools and libraries that receive funding from the FCC’s E-rate program to utilize that funding for home broadband connections to support remote learning at student’s home classrooms.

Increasing FCC oversight of broadband services—either via regulatory or statutory revisions— could also help address the digital divide. The FCC’s lack of regulatory opportunities to address the digital divide stems from the FCC’s 2017 decision to release broadband providers from common carrier regulations found in Title II of the Communications Act. Common carrier regulations also apply to telephone services and provide increased regulatory oversight, expand coverage, and prevent unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charging, practices, facilities and services. This increased oversight could be could amend its regulation to classify broadband as a common carrier or Congress could pass a federal law to require broadband services comply with common carrier regulations.

Removing barriers to municipal broadband services could also increase competition, lower prices, and make broadband service available in more communities by providing broadband service owned and operated by municipalities, tribes, rural electric or telephone cooperatives, or public private partnerships. While, there are over 300 municipal broadband networks in the U.S., about 20 states have enacted laws banning or placing serious restrictions on municipal broadband networks. Some states and localities are working to support these community broadband networks by passing laws or local referendums to authorize these networks. On the federal level, Congress could pass legislation barring states from preempting or restricting local public broadband services that are created to fill gaps in access.  While there been several bill introduced in Congress to specifically bar states from restricting public broadband to date, none of those proposed bills have become law.

Read the full article “COVID-19 Illustrates Need to Close the Digital Divide.”

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and education about laws related to the public’s health. We do not provide legal representation or provide advice on a particular course of action.