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As US Faces Nationwide Social Distancing, Coronavirus Threat Renews Demand for Universal Broadband Access

"Schools are closing and classes are migrating online. But not every student has internet at home."

A study space remains closed due to coronavirus fears at Stanford University on March 9, 2020 in Stanford, California.

A study space remains closed due to coronavirus fears at Stanford University on March 9, 2020 in Stanford, California. Stanford University announced that classes will be held online for the remainder of the winter quarter after a staff member working in a clinic tested positive for the Coronavirus. (Photo: Philip Pacheco/Getty Images)

Progressives said Friday the Federal Communications Commission must step up its efforts to help communities as the novel coronavirus's spread throughout the nation bolsters the case for progressive policies including universal and affordable broadband access.

With many employers and educational institutions moving operations online, "Broadband will become even more vital for millions of Americans," said Democratic FCC commissioner Geoffrey Starks—a point echoed by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.).

The call came as FCC chairman Ajit Pai on Friday kicked off the "Keep Americans Connected Pledge," which asks broadband and telephone service providers:

  1. not terminate service to any residential or small business customers because of their inability to pay their bills due to the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic;
  2. waive any late fees that any residential or small business customers incur because of their economic circumstances related to the coronavirus pandemic; and
  3. open its Wi-Fi hotspots to any American who needs them.

"As the coronavirus outbreak spreads and causes a series of disruptions to the economic, educational, medical, and civic life of our country, it is imperative that Americans stay connected. Broadband will enable them to communicate with their loved ones and doctors, telework, ensure their children can engage in remote learning, and—importantly—take part in the 'social distancing' that will be so critical to limiting the spread of this novel coronavirus," Pai said in a statement Friday, adding that some major servcie providers including AT&T, US Cellular, and Verizon had already signed onto the pledge.

Free Press campaign director Candace Clement welcomed the development but stressed that "there's much more that all internet service providers (ISPs) can and should do."

"While a few large ISPs have decided to drop their arbitrary and unreasonable data caps and overage fees, many have not. Millions of people in the United States are still impacted, including those using smaller ISPs that are not nationally known brands," she said.

Trade organizations representing ISPs should press the companies to take further steps, Clement said, like stopping service cutoffs, getting rid of caps and overage fees, and offering low-cost service packages.

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The FCC should step up its own efforts as well, said Clement. She pointed to the Lifetime program, which helps lower the cost of communications services for lower-income customers, as one target of those efforts.

Clement said the federal agency can take actions such as "increasing monthly allotments for Lifeline wireless plans, approving experimental licenses to increase public Wi-Fi capacity, and finally taking seriously the potential for traffic spikes and snarls at internet-exchange points."

Another advocacy group, Common Cause, issued a similarly lukewarm response to Pai's new program.

"Unfortunately, the FCC has spent the last few years stripping much of its authority to oversee the broadband industry, preventing many of the provisions in this pledge from being enforceable," said Michael Copps, a former FCC Commissioner and special advisor with Common Cause. He also address Lifeline, saying the FCC must make certain that "all eligible low-income households are enrolled in the program."

Copps also pointed to an issue that's been a focus of Democratic FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel—the digital divides' impact on students.

"As Commissioner Rosenworcel has repeatedly stated, the 'homework gap' puts students without home broadband at a significant disadvantage," said Copps.

"The coronavirus pandemic will expose many of the gaps in broadband connectivity we face today," he added. "The FCC must do everything it can to close these gaps and fully address the broadband connectivity needs of all Americans during this pandemic.”

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