Congress should act to counter "serious gaps" in broadband, think tank argues

When COVID-19 first emerged, many students forced to take classes from home didn't have adequate internet access. A think tank is urging Congress to fund broadband infrastructure in underserved areas and support broadband subsidies for low-income residents. (Getty Images)

A prominent technology think tank urged the FCC and Congress on Monday to address “serious gaps” in internet access for rural and low-income areas and for at-home access for students.

A new report by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation found that U.S. broadband networks handled the  COVID-19 surge in internet traffic better than most comparable nations and argued that policymakers should now be directing incentives and public resources to make sure broadband serves everyone.

The report recommended three actions. Congress should fund a one-time, largescale injection of capital for broadband infrastructure in rural areas of the country where it is too costly for providers, ITIF urged. Also, Congress should reform the Federal Communication Commission’s Lifeline program to expand subsidized broadband options for low-income users by allowing households to have two connections over mobile and fixed broadband.  And, there’s an urgent need for a subsidy to help Americans pay their broadband bills.   

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“There is no need to over-invest public resources to subsidize ultra-fast networks where broadband infrastructure already exists,” the ITIF report said.  COVID-19 showed that competitive, private networks don’t adequately address “serious gaps in rural infrastructure, affordability for low-income users, and at-home access for students.”

Streaming video from people working and taking classes at home during the pandemic have increased overall use of home broadband by 20% to 40%, the report noted. “Initial concerns this jump in traffic would result in performance degradation did not pan out, at least in the United States,” the report said.

The report was authored by Doug Brake, director of the ITIF broadband and spectrum policy. He has served on the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Group and holds a law degree from University of Colorado Law School.

Brake noted that while broadband performance has held up for many, there are gaps.  In some parts of the U.S., broadband infrastructure is lacking, while many Americans also “struggle to afford broadband subscriptions and devices, and therefore cannot access all of its benefits…Some schoolchildren …do not have access to a computer in the home.”

In one measure, 14% of school-age children did not have home internet access, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in a 2017 report.

RELATED: Editor’s Corner—COVID-19 worsens our digital divide

Brake urged passage of the HEROES Act, a COVID-19 recovery bill passed by the House to allow schools and libraries to purchase connectivity devices and a subsidy of up to $50 a month toward home broadband subscriptions and up to $100 for connected devices for low-income families and newly unemployed people.

COVID-19 should “serve as a warning to strengthen and make more resilient a variety of sectors through better use of technology,” Brake concluded.  “This crisis is an opportunity to galvanize policymakers to action…A significant capital investment to bring robust broadband to underserved rural areas, an improved Lifeline program to ensure broadband affordability and capital infusions to bring government services in the 21st century would go a long way toward achieving a more just and effective broadband network for all Americans.”

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