The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us exactly how much of the nation still lacks the requisite connectivity to seamlessly transition to telework and distance learning. 

Schools and Libraries quickly responded to these challenges by working to position their existing equipment in ways that would allow community members to access the internet without having to enter the physical building. Schools  deployed wireless equipment on buses that could travel into the community and ease connectivity burdens. However, these solutions are only temporary and do not resolve long-term connectivity issues. 

Schools are preparing to reopen. Buses will be put back to their original use. As we prepare for the future, expanded network infrastructure, more access to spectrum, new applications and software will all help provide options that did not exist before the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Support from new and existing Federal Communications Commission (“FCC” or “Commission”) programs will also be crucial to ensure that, in the wake of another crisis, there is no fear that a lack of connectivity will limit opportunities.

The Commission has already taken steps to help prepare individuals, healthcare providers, business owners, and others to stay connected. Be it through increasing funding for the Rural Healthcare Program, the Keep America Connected Pledge, or easing the rules for the Lifeline Program. These changes are essential as they allow those who are already connected to access healthcare, keep their service, or sign up for low cost service more easily than they would have been able to in the past. They remain essential tools even as the Commission seeks to develop technological solutions to prevent the next connectivity crisis. 

Wireless connectivity is not a meaningful substitute for robust wireline network connections, but the Commission has been making great strides in expanding the amount of spectrum that is available to served largely disconnected communities The Commission has held rulemakings on spectrum in the 5.9 GHz, TV White Spaces, and 2.5 GHz among others in order to provide new spectrum in order to connect and bolster the wireless solutions available to communities.

Physical devices will also play a next role in mitigating similar challenges in the future. Specifically, internet of things (“IoT”) devices, which already play a significant role, will serve as a powerful communication tool for keeping people up to date with information. As an example, data gathered by telemedicine devices can be mined to predict the ebb and flow of an epidemics trajectory in a population. As the uptake in telemedicine devices increases the new increase in available information may help show which communities are more at risk than others, and which types of treatment are more effective for certain populations. 

This is not limited to IoT devices however, artificial intelligence (AI) is beginning to be utilized to understand how COVID-19 spreads, and where outbreaks are likely to occur. AI is helping hospitals and other healthcare providers make more informed decisions and support better scenario planning tools. These technologies, while impressive, rely on high-speed connectivity to function. They will certainly help us prepare for the next global health crisis, but only if we are meaningfully connected before that time comes. 

The Commission has a responsibility to connect all Americans and close the digital divide. This charge has the added benefit of future-proofing the nation and mitigating similar connectivity challenges to what we have seen with the current health crisis. The Commission must ensure that it is exploring every option at its disposal and working with stakeholders at every level to ensure that any policies it enacts are reflective of national needs.