Jonathan Spalter

Broadband & COVID–19: #Together Apart

As coronavirus ravages our nation and the world, broadband providers have risen to the occasion. Despite record spikes in online connectivity — from work and school to streaming movies and virtual happy hours — broadband companies, from our largest national operators to our smallest independent rural carriers, are working around the clock with remarkable success to keep our nation connected.

Equally true, no moment in our nation’s history has made more clear the urgent need to finish the job of connecting the more than 20 million Americans without high-speed internet access.

COVID-19 is a national emergency of extraordinary scale. Connectivity is at the center of our nation’s response to it. Bold action is needed now—by our government working in partnership with broadband providers to keep everyone connected through the crisis — and finally deliver truly universal broadband service to every American home, school, hospital and business.

As leaders in Congress and the administration contemplate the next steps to get our nation through the pandemic and back on its feet, here are quick actions that can be taken now to transform a longstanding pursuit of true universal connectivity into an all-out sprint for the finish line.

Every Hospital, Every Medical Office

Every health provider should have robust broadband connectivity to allow caregivers to deliver video telehealth consultations with patients and confer with medical colleagues to provide quality care to as many as possible. Government has programs to support health care connectivity. It’s time to put them on steroids. Funding should be mightily increased and expedited to give our health care heroes everything they need to get us through this crisis.

Every School, Every Student

With schools shutting their doors for the remainder of the school year, deep questions lie ahead about our kids’ education. Emergency action should be taken now to enhance the Federal Communications Commission’s capacity to expand and expedite funding for its core work connecting schools and libraries. Additional emergency resources should flow to fund connectivity at home for students and teachers who can’t afford it — and to ensure every child has access to a computer, tablet, smartphone or other device they need to continue their schooling.

Every Home, Every Business

Twenty million Americans do not have an on-ramp to high-speed internet. The capacity exists for the government and broadband companies to relegate this fact to the history books in relatively short order. A surge now in federal funds to connect the final frontier — primarily unserved areas that are cost-prohibitive for businesses to serve on their own — can get us to the long-distant mountaintop of universal connectivity. Now is the time for our nation’s policymakers to think and act boldly and decisively about achieving — permanently — truly universal service for all Americans. In the meantime, additional funds should be made available immediately to quickly create a nationwide broadband map that can identify with pinpoint accuracy every last unserved home and business in America. This will allow for the expedited and highly targeted deployment of resources to connect them.

Every Communications Sector Worker

Alongside health care providers, first responders, food production workers and so many other of courageous employees deemed essential workers by the Department of Homeland Security, our nation’s broadband workforce — the women and men who roll the trucks and dig the trenches to provide high speed fiber broadband to communities, who climb the utility poles, who answer service calls in our homes and enterprises and hospitals to ensure we stay connected — are on the front lines of our collective fight against this pandemic. Immediate action by state and local governments is required to ensure they can access facilities everywhere that need connectivity. And they, too, urgently need protective personal equipment to do their jobs safely.

No Matter Your Income

This pandemic has laid bare the fault lines of our nation’s deepening economic fissures — as roughly 10 million Americans joined the ranks of those seeking unemployment assistance in March. The FCC’s Lifeline program helps low-income Americans afford communications services. As has been done in the wake of natural disasters before, steps need to be taken to provide a strong safety net of connectivity assistance including the establishment of an emergency Lifeline program to help crowded households keep up their studies, continue their jobs and maintain their mental health.

On High-Capacity Networks

Massive, time-sensitive work is underway across the country by broadband providers to rapidly expand the capacity of their networks to prevent congestion amid surging use. From direct emergency funding to expedited permitting and extensions on reporting requirements, there are myriad steps government can take to clear a path for this time-sensitive work.

With Support for “Free” Service

Broadband providers have answered FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s call to keep people and businesses connected during this emergency, even if these customers cannot pay their bills. It’s the right thing to do amid our current crisis, but companies large and small are taking on substantial debt to cover the costs of these mounting bills for their customers. As Congress weighs further action to stabilize our economy, and industries from airlines to entertainment seek assistance, broadband companies should be fully reimbursed for these emergency costs.

It is said that in times of crisis, we find out who we truly are. It is my sincere hope that history reveals this pandemic as the moment our nation finally stood #TogetherApart to connect every home and business, hospital and school. I hope this is a time we look back on and can say we looked out for one another amid the crisis, we emerged better prepared for future challenges and thought and acted boldly about how we can more equitably connect all Americans to the opportunities, innovations and ideas that will continue to make our nation a beacon of light to the world.

Thanks to broadband, we can #stayhome and still go big. The time is now to do so.

This article originally appeared as an editorial in Morning Consult.