Broadband Connectivity During the Age of COVID-19

Ed Gillespie
June 22, 2020
Broadband Access and Affordability

Broadband Connectivity During the Age of COVID-19

As we continue to navigate broadband during the Age of COVID-19, it is important to take stock of what has worked well, what hasn’t and what action we need to take to ensure a prosperous future for all Americans.

Let’s start with what’s working.  By all accounts, the broadband networks we all depended on to FaceTime with loved ones; to collaborate with teachers on homework and to attend classes; and to Zoom into office meetings, performed well under extremely heavy loads.

Despite predictions that America’s broadband infrastructure would buckle, it didn’tUSTelecom reports that internet traffic jumped 27 percent at the height of the crisis, but the country’s broadband networks rose to the challenge.  As The Phoenix Center and others have noted, that increase swamped broadband networks in other countries.  In the U.S., however, download speeds stayed steady and some actually increased.

That’s no accident. Decades of bi-partisan government policies promoted the private-sector investment that produced this result. Policy makers weren’t planning for the coronavirus when they decided to impose a light regulatory touch on broadband infrastructure, but good policy produces good results in unpredictable circumstances. That proved to be the case here. Contrast our broadband experience with the slower speeds and congestion that clogged the much more heavily regulated European networks.

While American broadband networks were up to the task, the COVID-19 crisis laid bare critical shortcomings in our approach to universal service.  As good as our networks are, broadband accessibility is an issue for some American households.

When we look at how our broadband policies need to evolve, we need to consider these points:  the FCC’s Lifeline program offers a $9.25/month subsidy to those Americans unable to afford broadband, and the host of regulations that support the program are such that MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators) — companies that do not build networks take the bulk of those dollars; the E-Rate rules for educational institutions are built on ensuring connectivity to classrooms and libraries – places that have been empty since mid-March; and despite advances in serving rural America, millions in rural communities still lack access to a competitive broadband speeds. Meanwhile, the mechanism for funding these universal service programs inches ever closer to implosion, as Americans are paying a 26.6 percent fee on their telephone bills for these programs, that’s about double what Americans paid just 10 years ago.

The results of these programmatic shortcomings are now evident:

  • The FCC estimates that 18 million people lack access to broadband internet service, but that number likely undercounts the real number because of mapping challenges.  And this divide hits rural areas the hardest, as more than one-fifth of rural Americans do not have access to high speed broadband.
  • The digital divide has also weighed heaviest on the poor during the COVID-19 pandemic, as more than 40 percent of those making less than $30,000 lack home broadband services.  According to a Pew Research Center study, 15 percent of U.S. households with school-age children do not have access to a high-speed internet connection at home, which created an immediate home-schooling crisis for school districts across the country.
  • This digital divide has persisted even as U.S. broadband providers have invested heavily in improving and expanding our networks.  Broadband providers invested $80 billion in network infrastructure in 2018 alone, and from 1996 through 2018, the broadband industry made capital investments totaling more than $1.7 trillion.  But there are limits to what private investment alone can do.  Smart government policies and modernized Universal Service Programs must do their part, too.

We believe bold action is needed – it is time for Congress to modernize and reform USF (Universal Service Fund) programs and establish a secure funding source for broadband connectivity for all Americans.  

In the coming months, we will be working with Congress, the FCC and the industry to establish the best framework for reform.  Congress has already passed the DATA Act, which will drive much more precise mapping of broadband availability.  Now, Congress needs to fund it.

There also appears to be growing bipartisan support for significant broadband infrastructure funding that will at last create universal 21st century connectivity the same way highway funding created universal 20th century transportation networks.  The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) Phase I auction will commence on October 29, and that auction will address the hardest-to-serve rural areas.

While we believe the FCC’s reverse auction approach is the right framework for allocating subsidies, in advance of the RDOF Phase II, we should all assess the successes and shortcomings of the Connect American Fund (CAF) and RDOF allocations to better understand how successful they were in driving robust and durable rural broadband deployment.  If Congress makes the funding available, perhaps the planned RDOF Phase II will at last fully address the rural availability gap.

Lifeline reform is equally important.  COVID-19 revealed just how many low-income households currently have inadequate connections. Lifeline should be revamped and modernized so eligible households can secure benefits from certified communications providers as easily as they use SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits to secure groceries at certified food stores.

Indeed, the SNAP program could be a model for a modernized Lifeline approach, with the FCC directly issuing benefit cards to eligible households.  Given how important this program is, financial support for the program should be included directly as a line item in the FCC’s annual budget so Congress can adjust that budget as economic circumstances in the country dictate.

It is now time for Congress to address the structural causes that make broadband unavailable or unaffordable for so many. 

At the beginning of this COVID-19 crisis, hundreds of voice and broadband service providers committed to keeping Americans connected through the FCC Pledge.  At AT&T alone, over 150,000 of our customers benefited from our commitment to waive certain fees and maintain service as other relief was made available to those economically impacted by the pandemic.  While these actions ensured connectivity, the Pledge commitments were always intended to be a short-term solution.

There is now broad agreement on the essential nature of broadband connectivity – to work, to learn, to obtain essential goods and services and to stay connected.  We look forward to working toward effective solutions that match the demands of the day.