CLINT SCHEMMER, CULPEPER STAR-EXPONENT
As the spread of the coronavirus has turned Americans’ lives upside down, it has shone “a bright spotlight,” lawmakers say, on the disparities between those with broadband access and those without.
In response, a group of U.S. House members has rallied to push Congress to make a “historic investment” in high-speed internet in response to the nation’s COVID-19 crisis.
Virginia Democrat and District 7 Rep. Abigail Spanberger worked with an Illinois Republican and a Democrat from the U.S. Virgin Islands to call for both chambers to include large-scale federal funding for broadband in Capitol Hill’s widely anticipated infrastructure package to help distressed communities and ease the nation’s economic recession.
Spanberger and Reps. Rodney Davis (R-IL) and Stacey E. Plaskett (D-USVI) drafted a letter, which was then signed by another 73 House members, urging the “Big Four”—House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer—urging the House and Senate to ensure that Americans have access to broadband from coast to coast.
“The economic mobility and access to the modern economy of Americans should not be determined by their ZIP code,” the lawmakers wrote.
“By making a historic investment in our nation’s e-connectivity, Congress would not only stimulate the economy through new construction and associated jobs but would unleash economic and entrepreneurial opportunities across all of America by giving those in the most remote areas access to the same tools for e-commerce as those in the largest cities,” they said.
Next relief package
They called for action in the next coronavirus-related stimulus package to be produced by Congress.
The COVID-19 crisis sharply demonstrates the nation’s need for more access to two-way health services, greater opportunity for people to work from home, and fewer barriers to remote learning for students, Spanberger said Wednesday in a Culpeper Star-Exponent interview.
The 7th District representative noted that some skeptics have asked, “Why should we pay for people to watch Netflix?”
But lack of access to broadband is “a huge issue,” she said.
Those who have high-speed internet forget that it determines which children can home home and do their digital homework, what employees can work remotely in the evening or safely stay away from a workplace, which farmers can use the latest digital tools to monitor, water and fertilize their crops, what student can tap an online resource from their college, and whether families can enjoy an e-book or a streaming movie from their local public library, Spanberger said.
A bipartisan array of House members from diverse states agreed with her logic, their letter shows.
“In the midst of this crisis, millions of Americans find themselves without the ability to access a wide range of essential services including e-learning for children being schooled at home, video conferencing to work from home and stay in touch with our loved ones, and telehealth services that help flatten the curve by keeping those feeling ill at home,” the House members wrote.
Va. senators speak
On Wednesday, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., urged the Federal Communications Commission to immediately ensure Americans across the country have access to broadband, as more people have to rely on the internet for telework, telehealth and online learning.
Warner asked the FCC to make it easier for companies to boost their signals by temporarily increasing power limits for Wireless Internet Service Providers in rural and exurban areas or by relaxing antenna height limits.
The state’s senior senator has also backed a FCC proposal to reduce regulatory barriers and better use TV “white space” technology to bring affordable, reliable internet to millions of Americans.
Recently, Warner urged the FCC to work directly with the federal departments of agriculture health and human services to ensure Americans eligible for Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) because they lost pay or a job are told they are eligible for the FCC’s Lifeline program, which helps low-income families get broadband and phone services.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., shares Warner’s enthusiasm for expanding broadband access to more people.
“The changes brought by this pandemic will dramatically raise the stakes for equity in broadband access so people in rural Virginia and other communities won’t be left out,” Kaine said in a statement sent to the Star-Exponent on Wednesday. “Many parts of rural America and many parts of our cities do not have the access to broadband that some wealthier areas do. We have to be more committed to bridging the digital divide.”
He raised the issue with Virginia newspaper opinion writers when they talked during an April 15 conference call.
Broadband is critical to whether people can work from home or consult a doctor or nurse digitally, the former governor said then.
The COVID-19 pandemic has proven that Zoom, other web-meeting applications, and telehealth services work pretty well, Kaine said.
“That’s something a lot of institutions might embrace,” he said.
Once the pandemic has passed, Kaine said he imagines many more people will continue, at least occasionally, to work from home. “If you have broadband, you can do that,” he said.
Many employers in Northern Virginia will consider staggering their workers’ schedules so they can work from home one day a week, he said.
Like Kaine, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia said Monday that the coronavirus outbreak has shined a light on the nation’s “digital divide.”
They said many rural residents are unable to get reliable cell service in an era when thousands of people must rely on online tools for work and school, The Associated Press reported.
Collins and Machin called on the FCC to improve access to mobile broadband hotspots in the country’s rural areas.
In early April, Spanberger wrote both parties’ House leaders to seek $2 billion in COVID relief to help schools and libraries serve more students with additional broadband hotspots. Forty-eight other House members signed her letter.
In South Carolina, GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham—a friend of President Donald J. Trump—recently said broadband must be part of future relief bills, and Republican Sen. Tim Scott said the COVID crisis shows it’s important for everyone from students to seniors to have access to reliable internet, a South Caroline newspaper reported.
Once the pandemic abates and the economy starts to recover, “we cannot leave these Americans to continue to face the same e-connectivity problems as they look to rebuild,” they said.
Record-high unemployment claims and projections of negative GDP growth throughout 2020 make it clear that, after the public health crisis ends, Congress will need to help stimulate the economy, the legislators wrote. And that should include much-needed investments in the nation’s rural areas, they urged.
The “connectivity divide” between rural America and more developed parts of the nation is creating many challenges for rural families, businesses, farms and students, especially amid COVID-19’s public health crisis, the legislators wrote the leadership.
Even as the COVID-19 emergency has forced a historic reliance on the internet, more than one in four rural residents lack broadband access, they stressed.
About 21 million Americans lack access to high-speed internet, according to the Federal Communications Commission’s 2019 Broadband Deployment Report.
And that number is very likely an underestimate, because the government’s maps of broadband coverage aren’t reliable, the lawmakers wrote.
The Benton Institute for Broadband and Society says that only 53 percent of U.S. students in small towns or rural areas have access to high-speed internet, compared to 77 percent of suburban students.
Time to act
Closing the digital gap between more and less affluent Americans, and the nation’s rural and urban areas, has never been so urgent, Spanberger said.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest in baseline infrastructure that will help our economy, culture and communities into the next century,” she said.
The crisis offers a rare chance to invest in American workers and small businesses that, at the moment, are “focused on their bare-bones survival,” she said.
Broadband access has long been a top issue for her Central Virginia constituents, Spanberger said.
Nationally, there are many House districts like hers, she said. Last year, 407 representatives (of 435 total) joined her effort to increase funding for the Agriculture Department’s ReConnect program and a Farm Bill effort to shrink the rural connectivity gap. Despite initial Senate opposition, Spanberger and her allies succeeded in getting Congress to provide $550 million for ReConnect to help build more rural broadband.
Now, the COVID-19 crisis has driven more Americans to understand the ramifications of the nation’s widespread lack of broadband, Spanberger said.
The issue’s advocates in Congress are seeing movement on it among House and Senate members who didn’t count broadband as a priority before, she said.
Similarly, Virginia’s Senate delegation and senators from other states are pushing for improved broadband coverage during the coronavirus crisis and beyond.