Virtual School Leaves Kids Behind, Sparking New Broadband Push

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(Bloomberg) -- The coronavirus shutdown left Los Angeles public schools with a problem: 100,000 students, or nearly one in six, lacked the computer equipment and internet connections needed for online instruction as classrooms shut.

“Many of our families are struggling to make ends meet and cannot afford to do this on their own,” Superintendent Austin Beutner said in a March 23 message to the schools community. “But their children deserve the same opportunity those in more affluent communities have.”

A growing number of politicians of both parties in Washington are coming to agree. The Covid-19 crisis, by laying bare the so-called “digital divide” at school systems and communities across the country, may achieve what years of lobbying by interest groups has failed to deliver: significant new federal funding to narrow the gap.

House Democrats on Thursday released a proposal for investing more than $80 billion to spread broadband, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she wants “a piece” of that funding in the next large coronavirus relief bill.

“We’re talking about distance learning, we’re talking about telemedicine, we’re talking about people buying things in a way that they hadn’t before,” Pelosi said at a news conference Thursday. “And yet, it’s not available to everyone. So, this is about fairness and equity in every way.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy in a press call Thursday called broadband funding “an appropriate discussion for us to have” as lawmakers debate the bill’s dimensions. In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has signaled reluctance to spend more in emergency packages -- yet other Republicans there acknowledge that broadband should be spread more widely.

“The coronavirus pandemic has further underscored the pressing need for increased access to broadband for all Americans,” Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker, chairman of the Commerce Committee that oversees internet policy, said in an emailed statement. “I believe this bipartisan priority will be considered by Congress.”

President Donald Trump tweeted April 21 that broadband was among the “Infrastructure Investments” the federal government needs to make in addition to bridges and tunnels to rebuild the nation.

Households face divergent fortunes under the stay-home orders imposed across the U.S. Office workers with good connections have been able to keep their jobs by staying in through services such as Zoom Video Communications Inc.

Meanwhile less-affluent households subsist in a form of digital twilight. They may have smartphones, but nearly 12 million schoolchildren lived in homes without internet connections in 2015, according to a widely cited congressional estimate.

They’re much less likely to have fast connections. About 56% of households earning less than $30,000 a year have broadband at home, compared with 92% of household with incomes of $75,000 or more, according to the Pew Research Center.

Congress took note of students’ plight in an earlier Covid relief bill, providing $16 billion aimed at easing remote learning. Schools can use the money for hardware, software, and connectivity, the FCC and Education Department said in an April 27 news release.

In Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest school system, made an emergency $100 million purchase of iPads and Chromebooks for students, and Verizon Communications Inc. kicked in wireless hotspots to bring signals to homes lacking service.

“All of a sudden the light bulb has gone on, about how essential broadband is to full participation in society,” said Gigi Sohn, a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy in Washington.

“The realization that you’ve got to have robust broadband, even if you don’t have a pandemic, has been brought to the fore,” Sohn said in an interview.

Congress previously hasn’t been willing to fund robust broadband programs, Sohn said. “There has not been a recognition among members of Congress that broadband is critical infrastructure,” Sohn said.

Funding has largely been left to an array of programs that include subsidies administered by the Federal Communications Commission, that are funded by a fee on telephone calls, according to an October 2019 report by the Congressional Research Service.

The U.S. doesn’t need to spend more money, said Roslyn Layton, visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute policy group.

“The best, fastest and quickest way to close any kind of gap is with wireless networks,” Layton said in an email. “There is cash flow in the broadband industry to make the necessary investment, but the spectrum has to be made available first.”

Food, Water, Internet

More than 200 companies and advocacy groups in a letter to congressional leaders on Wednesday called for broadband funding in upcoming relief legislation. Signers included Common Cause, Consumer Reports, the NAACP, and the Incompas trade group that has members including Netflix Inc. and Facebook Inc.

“Like food, water, and electricity, everyone needs broadband internet service during this unprecedented crisis,” the groups said in the letter. “That is why Congress must include policies that support broadband availability, including increased funding for adoption, network sustainability, and deployment for areas still lacking access, in upcoming stimulus packages.”

The crisis could push changes taking place over the past decade, as broadband has evolved from a relatively slow service that couldn’t have supported Zoom meetings, remote learning and widespread binges of shows from Netflix Inc.

“Coronavirus changes everything -- but in this case it doesn’t change things, it accelerates things” as broadband becomes essential to economic growth, said Blair Levin, who oversaw development of a national broadband plan while at the Federal Communications Commission a decade ago.

“It’s going to be an information society, and broadband is the means by which we collaborate,” said Levin, a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “You need 100% of school kids.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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