By Ryan Johnston
Broadband is increasingly indispensable. It has provided a platform for technological advancement and continued to drive some of our most innovative markets for years. Small businesses owners have been able to transcend geographic borders. It has allowed schools to deploy remote learning programs and people to elevate messages in ways that were once unimaginable.
However, in light of recent world events broadband is front and center in keeping more businesses connected, children in school, and doctors in touch with their patients. The outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) has not only highlighted the importance of broadband, high-speed connectivity has proven itself to be the lynchpin for local, state and federal emergency response efforts.
The FCC has reported that numerous broadband providers have taken steps to help alleviate the new digital burdens being placed on consumers given orders to work from home, or shelter in place. This is especially important as the spectre of the digital divide now looms larger than ever. With a reported one in five students not being able to log online to finish assignments from their homes, school closures and immediate transitions to digital-only most will trigger a greater impact on these students than those that have reliable broadband access.
An almost universal order from companies and organizations across the country to work from home, and schools requiring online classes, networks have seen unprecedented spikes in usage. As noted, two of the most important uses of broadband as of late have been the move to online classrooms and an increase in the use of telehealth services.
The importance of programs such as E-Rate have never been clearer. The FCC has the authority to use the E-Rate program to help schools combat a student’s lack of broadband access through loaner Wi-Fi hotspots. Additionally, the FCC recently waived E-Rate rules that prevented schools and other eligible entities from soliciting or accepting gifts from a service provider participating in the program. This waiver now allows schools and healthcare providers to accept improved capacity, Wi-Fi hotspots, networking gear, or other equipment or services to improve their response to the current outbreak.
Telehealth has also become more essential than it has ever been, and telehealth programs cannot survive without connectivity. The CDC recommends that those who believe they are showing symptoms of the novel Coronavirus to communicate with their healthcare providers over the phone or through video chat services in order to avoid waiting rooms. Hospitals, much like schools, will be able to take advantage of the waiver of the E-Rate “gift” rules, but this may not be enough. As cases continue to mount, bandwidth will become more important than ever as more and more patients seek to see their doctor virtually.
While the broadband providers are doing their part, local and state government leaders have filled in the gaps for communities that are still waiting for federal solutions. As New America CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter notes in a recent article, governors and local leaders are stepping up to work with their communities to provide free testing, the establishment of containment areas, urging universities to switch to online learning, and providing vouchers to help families afford cleaning supplies. Implementing those emergency response plans and real-time communications with populations that are at risk require baseline connectivity.
The current reality–working from home, shutting down schools, closing down businesses, etc.– has forced every member of government and the general public to confront the reality that, in a digital society, high-speed connectivity is essential. We have an opportunity to rethink the way that we support broadband networks and the community partnerships that increase adoption. We must collectively work towards increasing reliable access to broadband across the country.