The digital divide is not a new challenge, but the COVID-19 pandemic has shined a bright light not only on the disparities of coverage in rural areas but also on the inequality of access in other areas where affordability and lack of devices are a concern. As society was largely forced to learn, work, socialize and access health-care services remotely during the past year, these gaps have caught the attention of government at all levels, resulting in appropriations and programs targeted at mitigating the impacts and helping to solve these broadband gaps.
A Connect (X) All Access: Policy Summit panel explored this topic. Panelists Alexandrine De Bianchi, senior legislative assistant for Senator Jacky S. Rosen of Nevada, and Jake Baldwin, general counsel at Cross Family of Companies and a board member of the Rural Wireless Association, shared their thoughts on potential legislative measures that could address coverage gaps and how the broadband industry and government can work together to solve the problem. Visit https://policysummit.connectivityexpo.com/ to watch all of the panels.
De Bianchi said forthcoming legislation is likely to focus on not only accessibility but also affordability and availability of adequate devices for all members of families who need them for remote school and work. When students went remote last year, many families only had one device to share for access to the Internet and some also faced new difficulties paying for broadband access due to pandemic-related job loss, she said.
Baldwin agreed, saying COVID-19 has shined a light on issues that have existed for a while but haven’t gotten a lot of attention, including the homework gap and rural coverage. That new attention could translate into interest on the Hill and at the FCC in closing some of those gaps through direct investment into companies that are addressing coverage gaps through grants like the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund program, or support programs that go directly to consumers to help them pay for service through credits on their bill, he said.
“Closing the gap between rural and urban areas already had some bipartisan support before COVID, and I think we’ll continue to see that because of the spotlight that has been shined on it,” said Baldwin.
De Bianchi concurred that broadband tech issues generally have bipartisan interest and support, although she noted Republicans and Democrats don’t always agree on the details of how to get help into the hands that need it, whether through E-rate funding, the FCC’s Lifeline Program or public-private partnerships.
“There are definitely opportunities for both parties to come together on this issue,” she said. “This is not a partisan issue. Everyone wants access. Everyone needs access. COVID definitely has proven that.”
Solving coverage and accessibility gaps is complicated by the fact that different challenges create different needs in different areas within the same state. In Nevada, for instance, a rural community like Elko has different challenges with coverage and accessibility because of its location and low population density than a large city like Las Vegas, which may have needs related to modernizing existing infrastructure. As such, De Bianchi said it’s important for legislators to talk to people on the ground who are familiar with the challenges and know what needs to be done to address immediate problems. For example, some students urgently needed hotspots and devices to continue learning when the pandemic abruptly shut down schools last year, while others needed broadband access where it wasn’t available, she said.
Asked what the wireless industry can do to support local government efforts to close the digital divide, De Bianchi said putting people at the table ready to roll up their sleeves and tackle the issue is paramount. That means providing data and information to create better coverage maps, she said.
“We’re not getting out of this pandemic anytime soon, so it’s imperative that we all are honest and open about where the gaps are, and where we can improve,” she said. “Without knowing these things, there’s no way to try to find a solution to fix them.”
On the other side of the equation, Baldwin said legislators can help the wireless industry close coverage gaps through targeted funding and streamlined processes.
“It all boils down to time and money,” said Baldwin. “Government can help by providing funding, but they can also, in a way, provide time by streamlining some of the permitting processes and environmental review process, which are some of the things that can really delay projects.”