OP-ED: Congress fails schoolkids struggling to learn online

Andrea Gabor
Bloomberg Opinion (TNS)

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the weaknesses of the U.S. broadband infrastructure — a problem that hit schoolchildren especially hard. Millions of them had to struggle through online learning with little internet access, or none at all.

The compromise infrastructure package announced last month by a bipartisan Senate committee and supported by President Joe Biden includes $65 billion for much-needed broadband expansion. That would help solve the problem, but gaps would remain.

In wide swaths of the U.S., many children live in households without internet access at home; in some places the number exceeds 50%. Among those that have access, download speeds often do not meet the Federal Communication Commission’s minimum standard for broadband, defined as download speeds of 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 mbps.

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The compromise infrastructure deal ncludes $65 billion for broadband expansion, but gaps would remain. (Dreamstime/TNS)

Even before the pandemic, advocates of broadband expansion were arguing that internet access deserved recognition as a public service as important as electricity and telephony. In 2019, the FCC established the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to build broadband in underserved areas; grant winners included some of the nation’s biggest telecommunications providers, including Cox, Charter and Frontier. But the criteria for determining which areas are neediest and the measures for evaluating the performance of grant winners aren’t strong enough to ensure that providers meet local needs quickly and with promised speeds.

Urban markets: U.S. broadband problems fall into two broad categories. The largest group without broadband access is composed of city dwellers who cannot afford connections, which average $60 monthly nationwide. Of the estimated 20.4 million U.S. households without a broadband connection, 15 million live in non-rural households. A federal judge just blocked a New York law requiring internet service providers to offer high-speed broadband to low-income customers at a discount; the state is planning to appeal.

Black-majority cities including Baltimore and Cleveland appear to be overrepresented among places plagued by underinvestment by internet service providers. Of the nearly 10 million children who did not have home access to internet services adequate for online-learning during the pandemic, half were minorities.

“There’s not enough attention being given to the urban markets,” said John Windhausen Jr., executive director of the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition. “I don’t think it’s racially motivated — but there’s a racial impact.”

At the same time, a dearth of easy-to-upgrade fiber optic infrastructure has left many rural areas without broadband connections and residents in fast-growing urban and rural markets with inadequate speeds needed for online learning, telecommuting and streaming video. The problem is worst in tribal areas, where an estimated 35 percent of residents lack broadband access because building networks in large, remote regions is so costly.

Yet the Senate’s infrastructure proposal is silent on one key solution to the nation’s complex broadband problems: putting broadband networks operated by nonprofit groups, cooperatives and local governments at least on an equal footing with private internet service providers. Indeed, Biden’s American Jobs Plan released in March called for non-private-sector broadband networks to play a prominent role in filling service gaps and providing lower-cost plans. Any new legislation should follow suit.

But municipal broadband is fiercely opposed by industry groups and Republicans. A bill proposed by Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives would ban municipal broadband and force many localities to shut down existing programs. Close to two dozen states either ban municipal broadband or have erected roadblocks to limit their use.

Even in areas with growing broadband competition, though, towns have long been clamoring to build their own networks.

Take Wilson, North Carolina, which built a network in 2008 after the local telecommunications provider refused to build out faster internet service despite the town’s offer to share the cost. Now, Wilson’s fiber-optic network provides basic broadband at speeds of 50 mbps for $39 monthly. While some GOP legislators argue that municipalities lack the technical expertise to manage broadband networks cost-effectively, Wilson’s network has paid for itself since 2011.

Even school districts are getting into the act. Earlier this year, the Murray School District in a fast-growing suburb of Salt Lake City began providing broadband for its families using a slice of the broadband spectrum called Citizens Broadband Radio Service and reserved for various kinds of wireless providers. Although the area has numerous internet providers, there were no low-cost plans; when the pandemic hit, existing systems became overburdened and internet speeds slowed sharply.

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While most metropolitan broadband is being launched in small cities, the push for large, already overburdened school districts, like Dallas, to provide broadband is a sign that the market isn’t working. Jason Eyre, the Murray district’s technology supervisor, has been approached by districts from Tucson, Arizona, to Las Vegas for advice on setting up broadband networks.

Localities, including housing authorities, should cut deals with low-cost providers, such as the one connecting low-income neighborhoods in Detroit. Local governments should also demand that contracts with broadband providers include low-cost services and speed guarantees in exchange for the right to build out underground cable and other infrastructure. And regulators must keep large companies from crowding out local providers during the upcoming auction for CBRS spectrum.

Nor are consumer subsidies, such as the temporary Emergency Broadband Benefit, which helped low-income families pay for broadband during the pandemic, sufficient even if they are made permanent — for one thing, they pay for just a fraction of service costs. Both local and federal authorities also must ensure that subsidy programs, whether for customers or providers, don’t benefit companies at the expense of consumers. New federal legislation should direct infrastructure funds to states and cities that put the broadband needs of consumers first.

— Andrea Gabor, a former editor at Business Week and U.S. News & World Report, is the Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York and the author of "After the Education Wars: How Smart Schools Upend the Business of Reform."