COVID-19 Illustrates Why Congress Must Act Now on Broadband

It has been three months since the term “social distancing” became part of the American lexicon. Social distancing now means that distance learning, working from home, telemedicine, and e-commerce are the primary ways that Americans engage each other. Fortunately, due in part to the current administration’s internet governance policies, U.S. broadband carriers have been able to meet the shifting demand while voluntarily keeping households that are unable to make payments connected.

Despite its global leadership in quality of connectivity, the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated shutdown of businesses and schools have exacerbated the Digital Divide. In particular, rural connectivity lags and many lower income families lack the necessary digital tools to connect. Additionally, as people are unable to visit their doctors, they need to use new tools to stay healthy.

To achieve these goals the Chamber recommends long-term funding and permitting relief to sustainably bridge the divide while offering temporary, targeted, and timely solutions to address COVID-19 specific disparities.

This will help improve education, health, and the underprivileged while giving our slumping economy a much needed boost.

Funding High-Cost Broadband

According to the Federal Communications Commission’s 2020 Broadband Deployment Report, 22.3 percent of Americans in rural areas and 27.3 percent of those on Tribal lands lack access to high-speed internet. Prior to the pandemic, the Chamber Technology Engagement Center (C_TEC) released a report, which surveyed approximately 5,300 rural small businesses. Sixty-six percent of respondents cited that poor connectivity affected their business. The report’s economic analysis also concluded that if rural small business had access to digital tools yearly GDP and jobs would increase by $41.3 billion and 316,605 respectively. With some predicting de-urbanization in response to COVID-19, these numbers could also increase, making rural connectivity even more vital.

The Chamber supports private sector led deployment of broadband, but in many cases in rural America high costs disincentivize investment. One of the other contributing problems is the lack of adequate mapping to determine access to broadband. Just days after lockdowns began, President Trump signed into law the Broadband Deployment Accuracy and Technological Availability Act (“DATA”) requiring within 180 days the FCC to make rules to determine on a granular level the availability of broadband. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has called for additional funding to carry out the Act’s requirements.

In addition to accurate mapping, the Chamber calls on Congress to appropriate funding for these high-cost areas that allow all technologies [and providers] to compete for funds to serve truly unserved areas. Congress should prohibit duplicative funding and establish programs without existing Section 254 limitations, such as existing telecommunications carrier requirements.

Federal funding should also support collocation by enabling funds to be used for leasing tower space in addition to capital expenditures.

Finally, in the COVID-19 environment, speed matters and funding should be distributed to those who can stand up broadband networks quickly.

Bridging the Homework Gap

To prevent the spread of COVID-19, state governments have shut down school systems across the country. The state-mandated closures resulted in parents playing the role of part-time educators while their children connect to online education. Unfortunately, many low-income students lack the necessary connectivity to keep up with their peers. According to a Pew Research report, “[o]ne-in-four teens in households with an annual income under $30,000 lack access to a computer at home, compared with just 4 percent of those in households earning over $75,000…” That same report indicated that Hispanic (18 percent) and African American (11 percent) homes were more likely to lack computer access.

COVID-19 worsens the Homework Gap and threatens the expansion of opportunities to minority communities. This will only get worse if schools experience closures during the next school year.

To urgently address this inequality of opportunity, Congress should appropriate funding in a technology neutral manner outside the existing E-Rate and other Universal Service Fund programs to provide: 1) wired or wireless connectivity; 2) service equipment such as modems, routers, and hotspots; and 3) devices like tablets, computers, and smartphones.

To address budgetary concerns, funding should be targeted and temporary, lasting for only the duration of the national emergency and focusing on low-income households without a home broadband connection or in jeopardy of losing their broadband connection, including related equipment or tools like a computer.

Expanding Telehealth Availability

The COVID-19 pandemic also impacts the healthcare industry with doctors moving to a telemedicine format for routine and non-emergency care. When Congress passed the CARES Act, it appropriated $200,000,000 for coronavirus-related telemedicine. Unfortunately, current FCC rules only enable funding for telehealth to go to institutions like public and research hospitals. The Chamber recommends any further pandemic funding for telemedicine include private hospitals, thereby expanding by 20 percent the number of institutions that are eligible for funding.

Permitting Expanded Connectivity

Even the most robust broadband funding will not succeed at connecting all Americans if permitting barriers block deployment. On a federal level, NEPA reforms will be necessary to achieve this goal but many other barriers exist, including state and local siting rules.

5G technology will be an economic game changer if history is a guide. According to one study, “the creation of 4G networks contributed nearly half a trillion dollars to the U.S. economy in 2016, and the introduction of mobile broadband added $100 billion to the U.S. GDP.” Regulatory certainty drives capital investment and unfortunately many state and local governments are charging exorbitant fees and stalling small cell broadband deployment. It is for this reason that the Chamber supports the approach taken by Senators Thune and Schatz who introduced the STREAMLINE Act, which would work to reduce fees and impose shot clocks on localities for making permitting decisions.

A national broadband permitting strategy should also modernize how wireline broadband decisions are made. Wireline broadband and the cable industry provide a massive benefit for covered regions. In 2018, the cable industry contributed to a $421 billion economic impact and supported 2.9 million jobs. The Chamber supports wireline streaming and cable franchising reform in addition to notice requirements when state and local governments intend to alter public rights of way.

COVID-19 is rapidly changing the way we work, learn, and stay connected. The pandemic has highlighted the need for a strategic, long-term broadband funding and permitting strategy. At the same time, Congress must address the urgent short-term needs caused by the pandemic related to education and healthcare equality. America’s communication infrastructure leads the world because of the private sector, but it will be vital for our continued leadership for Congress to help fill in the gaps.