Covid-19 and the digital divide

The Coronavirus pandemic has really laid bare the fundamental inequalities of U.S. society. This is particularly the case for internet access.

While the internet provides many with the opportunity to continue their daily lives with some semblance of normalcy amid the crisis, millions of Americans do not have reliable access to the web. Moreover, many workers do jobs that cannot be conducted online, like manufacturing and home health care. As a result of this stark digital divide, untold numbers are likely to suffer educational lapses, profound social isolation, or unemployment. As an IMF official recently stated, this will undoubtedly deepen inequality.

According to the Pew Research Center, 29% of adults with household incomes less than $30,000 a year don’t own a smartphone, while 44% don’t have home broadband and 46% lack a “traditional” computer. Pew also noted that 35% of lower-income households with school-age children don’t have a home-based broadband internet connection.

Obviously, this creates a potentially devastating situation for adults and children alike, who are de facto denied access to information and resources that may very well mean the difference between academic success and failure, solvency and financial ruin, and even life and death. People seeking medical care are being told to avoid hospitals and doctors’ offices in favor of video or phone calls with their doctors, but that’s hardly an option if you have no connection at all. Incidentally, given the increasing shift toward “telemedicine”, it is unsurprising that the American Medical Informatics Association (AMIA) urged the US government in 2017 to recognize broadband access as a social determinant of health.

covid-19 pandemic and the great slowdown

If that wasn’t problematic enough, even those who have a connection are likely to be experiencing a serious degradation in the quality of their internet during this crisis. According to a recent report by M-Lab, an open source project which monitors global internet performance, internet service slowed across the country after the lockdowns.

Per M-Lab’s data, in late March, most people in 62% of counties across the US did not have the government’s minimum download speed for broadband internet. The report notes that between February and mid March, when the pandemic was still in its infancy here in the US, there was a 10% increase in how many counties saw download speeds fall below the government standard, representing about one in ten US counties. This data certainly puts into question the corporate ISPs claims that their networks are operating just fine.

It is important to note that the slowdown was occurring in rural and urban areas alike. In the Guardian’s analysis of the M-Lab data, it shone a spotlight on the Bronx, NYC’s poorest borough:

Bronx county in New York, the poorest of New York City’s five boroughs, has witnessed a sharp drop in broadband speeds. More than 1.41 million people live in the Bronx, a 42.4 sq mile (110 sq km) area, and their median broadband speed dropped 10Mbps – megabits per second. ISPs must also deliver a connection which has a minimum 3Mbps upload speed to meet the FCC standard for broadband. In a household where students are being asked to teleconference their teachers while their parents dip in and out of work meetings on Zoom and other platforms, the upload speed needed is far beyond the 3Mbps minimum.

locked out of the virtual classroom

Of course, this assumes that they even have internet at home to begin with, which, as we noted above low-income families with school-age children very often do not. And, this being the U.S., there are the usual racial disparities within the disparity. As Dana Floberg writes in the Guardian:

Poor families and people of color are particularly affected – only 56% of households making less than $20,000 have home broadband, and black and Hispanic households lag behind their white counterparts even when we control for income differences. Even among students who theoretically have access, not all access is equal. According to census research, 8% of households who have internet rely exclusively on mobile broadband. Once again, low-income people and communities of color are disproportionately more likely to be mobile-only broadband adopters. This also has particular impacts on students – only about half of school-age children who live in mobile-only households personally use the internet at home, perhaps because of the difficulty of sharing mobile devices.

This is not a new problem, though. Pew research back in 2018 revealed there was a serious “homework gap”, where nearly one in five students between kindergarten and 12th grade do not have computers or speedy Web connections. It is for this reason that many school districts discontinued teaching new materials for the rest of the school year once classes went online, as there were serious questions about equity. And to be clear, the pandemic has exacerbated this situation by adding to or compounding existing problems for low-income families like paying for food and shelter. As Michael Cataldo, Norfolk’s deputy superintendent, told a journalist from US News and World Report:

“We have some families that … are struggling just to get food on the table,” he said. “They’re not thinking about how to help their children with homework assignments.”

Virginia is no outlier

Here in Virginia, approximately 98% of homes and businesses in Virginia’s cities and suburbs have access to high-speed internet, meaning offering download speeds of 25 megabits per second or more [for now, we’ll bracket the discussion of whether that is really “high-speed”]. Nevertheless, nearly one-third of rural Virginia’s homes do not and about 11% have no access to any internet service, according to the 2019 Commonwealth Connect report that was commissioned by the Northam administration. Depending on the specific rural county, the number of homes without broadband can be over 50 percent. And shockingly, people in these poorly served areas are paying exorbitant costs for really slow internet. Here is a quote from the Daily Press:

“Our son is a junior and doing homework at home is very hard. Something that should take two to three hours to do turns into 10 to 12 hours because of the connection. Last week’s assignments he finished right at midnight on Friday. We pay over $80 monthly and it’s not even unlimited!” said Tammy Nelson, who lives in King William County.

arlington: Access without affordability

Access is one thing, however, affordability is another. Here in broadband-rich Arlington, 10 percent of households do not have internet at home – mostly because they cannot afford it. Arlington County took steps to mitigate this by using its municipal network to set up hotspots and distributed take-home devices through APS. When it became clear that that was still not enough, the county used $500,000 of its CARES Act money to strike a deal with Comcast to provide a slightly improved version of the latter’s Internet Essentials service to thousands of families for up to a year as well as MiFi devices. This should be adequate for the summer, but once the school year begins again, these fixes will likely prove to be insufficient. As Hannah Natanson at Washington Post reported back in May:

The school is also extending its WiFi to places such as school parking lots, permitting any member of the public to drive up and connect. But that method has drawbacks, too. For example, Adusumilli said, not all families own cars. The third temporary fix involves MiFis — small Internet-giving devices that Arlington staffers have delivered to 870 households since schools closed. But they have serious limitations, Adusumilli said. They can support just 90 minutes of high-quality video class per day. This has not been a major problem so far, Adusumilli said, because Arlington is not offering video instruction during the shutdown. But that may change come fall. And families are already using the MiFis for much more than school, he said. Anonymized aggregate data shows “families looking at news sites, county sites, hiring sites,” Adusumilli said. “It’s clear why: Some of the families we provided MiFis for, this is their only connection.”

Comcast extortionists

For those of us who were fighting for telecommunications reform in VA this past legislative session, the fact that we have to pay Comcast for their crappy Internet Essentials service instead of leveraging our existing municipal network is absolutely infuriating. First of all, it is Comcast and the other big telecoms that essentially wrote the laws that prevent Arlington from using ConnectArlington to…umm…connect Arlington! The cities that do not face such restrictions have been seeing a rapid climb in subscriptions and speed upgrades during the pandemic (and some rural areas now have faster more reliable internet than some cities thanks to work of rural electric and telephone coops).

Second of all, while Comcast has actually stood out among the corporate telecoms in terms of its efforts to bridge the digital divide during the current crisis, its gleeful receipt of mass public subsidies flies in the face of its own lobbying efforts to prevent municipal networks from subsidizing service for low-income residents. As the canny bloggers at Community Networks noted in a recent article about school districts’ deals with Comcast:

We are supportive of these sponsorship programs and Comcast’s willingness to work with the school districts. However, we want to remind readers that these same solutions would probably be called unfair cross-subsidies if municipal networks like Cedar Falls Utilities proposed them. “It is okay for Comcast to take public subsidies, but not local governments,” said Community Broadband Networks Director Christopher Mitchell. Tennessee and Louisiana even have laws that limit how low municipal broadband networks can price their service, preventing them from implementing creative solutions like this.

Thirdly, it is outrageous that we are subsidizing a 25/3 mb plan (will anyone from the County actually be monitoring this program to make sure Comcast lives up to those speeds?). Yes, yes – 25/3 is currently the FCC’s standard for “high-speed”, but ask any tech expert, and they will tell you how absurdly low that bar is. Here were the digital advocacy group Public Knowledge’s comments to the FCC about that standard:

Public Knowledge juxtaposed that against Google Fiber’s announcement that even 100 Mbps was being left behind and it would now only be offering gigabit speeds: “[E]ven if you don’t think you need a gig now, we think you will in the very near future,” the company said in announcing the sunset of 100 Mbps. It also cited NCTA-The Internet & Television Association data showing that one-gig service is now available to more than 80% of U.S. homes and trumpeting the trials of 10G service, citing 1 gig service in 80%-plus as proof of concept. The group said that given that, 25/3 is too low a mark and asked the FCC to up its aim. “We strongly encourage the Commission to increase the benchmark speed in order to portray a more modern, realistic broadband standard to at least 100 Mbps,” it said.

Time for a public option

In the aforementioned WaPo article about Arlington’s digital divide, Arlington County Board member Katie Cristol frets about the constraints that state telecom laws place on the use of our public fiber network. It is true that the laws do curtail the County’s ability to provide service to anything other than county-owned buildings, but there is in fact a workaround: form a broadband authority and convert part of ConnectArlington to an open access network that lays fiber directly to every building in the county (and lights it!).

This is by no means an obscure or dodgy solution. Under the Virginia Wireless Service Authority Act, counties, cities and towns in Virginia have the power to form a “wireless service authority” (usually called a “broadband authority” once formed) that can provide digital communication services. Several cities and counties have already formed an authority, and two of them – the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority and the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority – have made amazing strides in connecting residents and businesses within their operating territories.

An Arlington Broadband Authority would do well to 1) partner with Falls Church and Alexandria, and 2) follow the Ammon, ID model of creating an open access network. Ammon has one of the fastest networks in the country and the most innovative. Their open access network infrastructure is fully publicly owned and operated, but they use a combination of virtualization and automation technology to allow multiple independent ISPs to compete to offer service (referred to as a “software defined network”). This would allow us to get around the rules that prevent municipal providers from competing with incumbents while greatly increasing speed and affordability. Ammon also used an innovative, debt-free financing approach that should be explored by any future broadband authority (obviously state laws differ, so it’s not a sure thing that we could emulate that particular method).

Visit our Arlington Broadband Authority page to learn more.

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