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The Coronavirus Means That Americans Need Free and Low-Cost Broadband Now More Than Ever

Adrienne Patton

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March 23, 2020 – As Americans shoulder on in self-quarantine, one thing is painfully clear — America needs a quick and stable solution to connecting the millions who do not have broadband access.

That was the conclusion that emerged from a panel of experts and practitioners working in broadband and digital inclusion on Broadband Breakfast Live Online on Monday.

“Broadband is a necessity,” said Public Knowledge senior Vice President Harold Feld, who joined Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark, and other panelists, on Monday’s Live Online event involving free and low-cost broadband plans.

With millions of people unable to afford broadband, Feld proposed an amendment to the stimulus package currently being considered by Congress. Feld suggested connecting everyone who wants broadband and allowing Internet Service Providers to bill the government a monthly fee per subscriber for a certain number of months.

Although the Federal Communications Commission rolled out the “Keep Americans Connected” pledge 10 days ago, the pledge does not provide broadband for those who remain unconnected. Instead, signers of the pledge agree to stave off termination of services and late fees for two months.

Unlike the FCC pledge, Feld said his proposal

“would help people right away.” It would also stimulate the economy and the providers, Feld said.

Feld estimated that if the government adopted this plan, it would cost about $6 billion a month, a price he said was possible and necessary.

Whether to keep in touch with family, telework or continue schooling, people must be connected, argued Feld.

This is also a public safety issue, agreed Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. Connecting people to broadband will allow them to stay home and prevent the spread of coronavirus, said Siefer.

“We can’t rely upon the charity of these Internet Service Providers” because they are swamped and overwhelmed, said Siefer.

Jeff Sural, who directs the broadband infrastructure office in the North Carolina Department of Information Technology, said he was on a call between the North Carolina governor and ISPs in the state last week. Most pledged to keep customers connected.

However, Sural said partnering with other agencies to find solutions to keep people at home, especially those who have symptoms, is also crucial.

Community colleges are blasting Wi-Fi to reach their parking lots so people can connect from their cars, said Sural.

However, panelists agreed that hotspots are not a cure-all. “We cannot put all of our eggs in the hotspot basket,” said Siefer. Hotspot service can be unreliable, but hotspots can still be a “piece of the solution,” she said.

“We have to find creative ways to reach people” because we cannot reach them online, said Connect.DC Program Manager Deleno Squires. Sometimes, that means text messaging or mobile email.

“I hope that the crisis has provided an opportunity both for providers, practitioners, and policymakers to advocate for real and lasting change,” said Squires.

Follow upcoming Live Online events, see Broadband Breakfast Live Online Will Stream Daily in March on ‘Broadband and the Coronavirus’

Guests for this event:

  • Harold Feld, Senior Vice President, Public Knowledge
  • Angela Siefer, Executive Director, National Digital Inclusion Alliance
  • Deleno Squires, Program Manager, Connect.DC - Digital Inclusion Initiative, Office of the Chief Technology Officer, District of Columbia
  • Jeff Sural, Director, Broadband Infrastructure Office, North Carolina Department of Information Technology
  • Drew Clark (Moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast

Panelist resources:

Follow upcoming Live Online events, see Broadband Breakfast Live Online Will Stream Daily in March on ‘Broadband and the Coronavirus’

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