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With Millions of Students Cut Off Digitally, Coronavirus Pandemic Bolsters Demand to Treat Internet as Public Utility

Advocacy group calls for $100 billion investment toward creating a broadband system "that would benefit people, not just companies."

Eight-year-old Indi Pineau, a 3rd grader in Jeffco Public Schools, works on doing her first day of online learning in her room at her family's home on March 17, 2020 in Lakewood, Colorado.

Eight-year-old Indi Pineau, a 3rd grader in Jeffco Public Schools, works on doing her first day of online learning in her room at her family's home on March 17, 2020 in Lakewood, Colorado. Jeffco Public Schools implemented a remote learning and work plan where teachers, students, and staff will educate and learn from home with online programs for an unknown period due to COVID-19. (Photo: RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

While Senate Democrats continue to hold the line against a third GOP coronavirus package condemned as a corporate bailout that leaves behind the nation's most vulnerable, concerns about remote education and digital connectivity during the pandemic are rising, bolstering the argument for treating the internet as a public utility like water and electricity.

"Children without connectivity are at risk of not only being unable to complete their homework during this pandemic, but being unable to continue their overall education."
—20 U.S. senators

In a letter Sunday to Senate Majority Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), 20 senators requested that the new COVID-19 relief package include at least $2 billion in E-Rate funds for schools and libraries to provide hotspots or other Wi-Fi capable devices for students lacking internet access at home.

"Children without connectivity are at risk of not only being unable to complete their homework during this pandemic, but being unable to continue their overall education," warns the letter, led by Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.). "Congress must address this issue by providing additional financial support for home internet access in the next emergency relief package so that no child falls behind in their education."

Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic member of the Federal Communications Commission, welcomed the push for increasing student internet access in a tweet Monday and wrote that because of the ongoing public health crisis, "millions of kids are out of school and struggling to go online for class."

Free Press Action on Monday proposed a spending plan for Congress and the FCC to keep people connected to the internet during the pandemic. It calls for $1 billion in immediate funding for Lifeline, a federal program that provides affordable communications to people with low incomes; $25 billion for a Lifeline benefit of up to $50 per month for a home-internet connection; $5 billion for the E-Rate educational connectivity program; and $50 billion to deploy high-capacity broadband networks in rural and unserved areas.

"The coming weeks will lay bare the already-cruel reality of the digital divide: tens of millions of Americans cannot access or cannot afford the home broadband connections they need to telework, access medical information, and help young people learn when school is closed."
—Geoffrey Starks, FCC

Overall, the plan calls for allocating up to $100 billion in subsidies, rebates, and tax relief to create a broadband system "that would benefit people, not just companies."

"What the country needs right now is massive spending to replace lost incomes and to keep society functioning while most people are confined to their homes," Free Press Action research director S. Derek Turner said in a statement. "Our leaders need to act quickly to ensure that kids can continue to learn, seniors can move their routine doctors' office visits online, and as many workers as possible can continue to do their jobs remotely."

Dana Floberg, policy manager at Free Press, explained in a Guardian op-ed Monday that "nationwide, approximately 22% of households don't have home internet, including more than 4 million households with school-age children. Poor families and people of color are particularly affected—only 56% of households making less than $20,000 have home broadband, and black and Hispanic households lag behind their white counterparts even when we control for income differences."

Research shows 8% of households just have mobile broadband, and "only about half of school-age children who live in mobile-only households personally use the internet at home, perhaps because of the difficulty of sharing mobile devices," Floberg added.

"And while it's better than being completely disconnected, mobile-only access isn't ideal," she wrote. "Mobile services are often limited by data caps, and mobile devices can make certain tasks incredibly challenging. Imagine studying for your calculus exam or writing a world-history paper on a cellphone. This is a reality for a lot of students who don't have home broadband."

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"Study after study shows that people don't have internet because they can't afford it, and because systemic racial discrimination blocks them from subscribing," noted Floberg. She argued that although some schools have tried to address these inequities by loaning students in need computers and mobile hotspots, broader action from both policymakers and internet service providers (ISPs) is needed.

Earlier this month, Free Press called on the country's ISPs to suspend data caps and overage charges, pause service disconnections for non-payment, eliminate eligibility requirements for any low-income targeted plans, and "waive all billing for low-income households, seniors, furloughed workers, and households with public school students who have been sent home due to school closures."

Floberg reiterated those demands Monday and declared that "we need public policies that bring real price competition to ensure universally affordable broadband access."

The new coronavirus, which in the United States has infected over 46,000 people and led to nearly 600 deaths since emerging in China late last year, has spurred various calls for action, including a March 19 New York Times op-ed from the FCC's other Democratic commissioner, Geoffrey Starks.

"The coming weeks will lay bare the already-cruel reality of the digital divide: tens of millions of Americans cannot access or cannot afford the home broadband connections they need to telework, access medical information, and help young people learn when school is closed," Starks wrote. "When public health requires social distancing and even quarantine, closing the digital divide becomes central to our safety and economic security."

Starks argued the FCC—in order "to support Americans in need"—should act to increase lendable free hotspots at schools and libraries, expand the reach of telemedicine, and enhance Lifeline.

Rosenworcel delivered a similar message on "The Vergecast" last week, saying that "broadband is front and center in this crisis. We are telling the nation to go online for work, for school, for healthcare like never before. We're going to stress our networks. We're going to expose the digital divide, and I think the FCC has got to pay attention to what is happening and take every step it can to connect more people right now."

Others, such as Democratic congressional candidate Shawna Roberts of Ohio, have made the case that the coronavirus outbreak provides just the latest evidence that internet access should be considered a public utility:

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