“My friends can do their work,” Yenifer said. “It makes me sad.”
It’s a predicament facing millions of families around the country — roughly 162 million people, by one estimate — with no end in sight, as the novel coronavirus seems likely to disrupt school again next academic year. In Virginia, as in other states, school officials are racing to reach families like the Portillos, publicizing discounted offers from Internet providers, extending school WiFi into parking lots and distributing hotspot devices. And Internet access is becoming more vital every day, as parents must head online to fill basic needs such as job hunting and doctor’s appointments.
But school solutions are limited and makeshift, officials acknowledge, unlikely to serve in the long term. And schools trying to do more face a major hurdle: long-standing laws that effectively bar county governments and public school systems from providing Internet directly to families. Although these laws exist in dozens of states, they are especially harsh in Virginia.
“Schools are taking on the onus to solve a society-wide problem with almost no resources,” said Sascha Meinrath, a professor in telecommunications at Pennsylvania State University. “It’s necessary, but it is entirely insufficient to address the need.”
As the pandemic stretches into its third month, some lawmakers, school staffers and advocates in the state are clamoring for change: They want to revise or repeal the laws and replace them with regulations that treat Internet access as a public utility.
“We need to make sure our citizens have access to something that, at this point, is as essential as electricity,” said Katie Cristol (D), an Arlington County Board member who supports the idea of new legislation.
Opponents, however, assert the existing laws protect business from needless government interference and guard against the waste of taxpayer dollars.
Del. C.E. “Cliff” Hayes Jr. (D-Chesapeake), who chairs the Virginia House’s communications, technology and innovation committee, said he is expecting a slew of proposed changes, and a pitched battle, during the next legislative session in January.
He plans to spend the intervening months exploring every inch of Virginia law around broadband, hunting for ways it could be tweaked to expand access.
“I can think of an era when the Internet was a luxury, a nicety, something neat to have,” Hayes said, “but now it has become a necessity.”
“This,” he added, “may be the civil rights issue of our time.”
'People are being left behind'
The pandemic is bringing to the boiling point a long-simmering dispute on whether Internet access should be offered and regulated by the government.
Internet is currently provided to most Americans by one or two private companies at a time, Meinrath said. He traces the state of affairs to a seminal 2005 Supreme Court ruling that limited competition in Internet services.
Buoyed by that success, Meinrath said, large companies led a lobbying campaign over the past decade that saw roughly 20 states pass laws edging municipalities out of the Internet provision arena.
“The effect is very clear,” said Meinrath, who co-founded Measurement Lab, an international consortium of Internet researchers and scientists that tracks broadband speed worldwide. “Data show that states that pass these laws have worse service, at more expensive prices, in fewer locations.”
Virginia — along with Wisconsin and Alabama — claims the most rigorous restrictions against municipal Internet provision, according to Broadband Now, a data aggregation company. By that site’s estimate, roughly 83 percent of Virginians had Internet connectivity — defined by the Federal Communications Commission as sufficient streaming power to conduct one high-definition Zoom call at a time, Meinrath said — as of March 2020. Broadband Now ranked Virginia 15th in the nation for Internet coverage.
Although Virginia law technically permits local governments to offer broadband to residents, it places a minefield of regulations in the way.
It forbids municipalities from pricing their services lower than established companies. It bars them from subsidizing their rates. It forces them to clear bureaucratic and procedural hurdles companies don’t face. And if a county government wants to offer voice, video and data services, the law requires that officials prove they can turn a profit within the first year of operation, an extremely difficult feat even for a private provider.
Last year, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed a new law giving municipalities the power to employ independent providers to build networks reaching communities in need of Internet. But the law only affects areas where fewer than 10 percent of residents have access to broadband.
Jonathon Hauenschild, who directs a task force focused on technology and communications for American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), said laws like Virginia’s lead to better service by freeing companies from the fetters of big government, enabling the healthy competition that characterizes a thriving market. ALEC, which draws much of its funding from large corporations, has a long and successful track record of advancing conservative bills in state legislatures.
“We also need to ensure a level playing field,” he said, “so that a municipality can’t build a network and freeze out all competitors.”
A 2020 study conducted by Broadband Now, however, found that states without legislative roadblocks to municipal broadband tend to have lower-priced Internet services on average, and that those services are available to more people than in states with barriers.
And amid the pandemic, Hauenschild’s line of thinking is less convincing to some lawmakers, including in Arlington County. Roughly 10 percent of the county’s 230,000 residents lack a home Internet connection, said Cristol, the county board member. The virus has converted this digital divide, long a source of inequity, into an emergency, she said.
What is especially infuriating, Cristol said, is that Arlington could easily offer Internet to some of its most vulnerable residents. The county in 2015 spent $4.1 million to install a 10-mile fiber network that runs throughout the county, including near areas that are low-income and lack broadband.
“It can provide high-speed Internet to anyone who connects to it,” Cristol said. “But — and this is the crux — Virginia law says we are not allowed to let individual consumers connect to that network.”
Efforts to get that law changed, pursued over the last few years, fell on deaf ears, Cristol said. Proposals foundered as recently as Virginia’s last legislative session. But the pandemic, Cristol believes, could finally force change — across the nation.
“It has to,” she said. “As a society, we can’t avoid the truth that people are being left behind because they do not have home Internet.”
Arlington's temporary fixes
As life shifts online, Arlington Public Schools is one of thousands of school systems suddenly forced to play Internet provider. Its frantic activity over the past few months, and the shortcomings of those efforts, mirror struggles taking place nationwide.
The division began making preparations to offer families makeshift Internet access a few days before Northam ordered schools closed, said Rajesh Adusumilli, assistant superintendent for information services.
The district, which serves 28,000 students, was better prepared than some: Students in third through eighth grade receive iPads, and high-schoolers get MacBook Air laptops. With devices largely taken care of, Arlington’s technology team focused on assessing Internet access.
By analyzing activity on student devices in early March, Arlington officials identified roughly 1,000 households without connectivity, Adusumilli said. The division also started researching ways it could work around Virginia Internet laws.
The first of several options involved publicizing the services of Comcast, which is offering free Internet through June for families who qualify for federally subsidized meals, and at a reduced rate of $10 a month afterward. This is still too pricey for many parents who have lost jobs because of the virus, Adusumilli said, so the school system has partnered with the county to secure a $500,000 grant to help families through the summer.
The school is also extending its WiFi to places such as school parking lots, permitting any member of the public to drive up and connect. But that method has drawbacks, too. For example, Adusumilli said, not all families own cars.
The third temporary fix involves MiFis — small Internet-giving devices that Arlington staffers have delivered to 870 households since schools closed. But they have serious limitations, Adusumilli said. They can support just 90 minutes of high-quality video class per day.
This has not been a major problem so far, Adusumilli said, because Arlington is not offering video instruction during the shutdown. But that may change come fall. And families are already using the MiFis for much more than school, he said.
Anonymized aggregate data shows “families looking at news sites, county sites, hiring sites,” Adusumilli said. “It’s clear why: Some of the families we provided MiFis for, this is their only connection.”
The school district is doing all it can short of actually providing Internet, as forbidden by law, said Adusumilli, who is eager to see legislative change. While proud of his team’s work, he fears the future. There will be no equity in education or life, he said, until every household has high-speed Internet access.
And he is haunted by the roughly 5 percent of families, like the Portillos, that the school has been unable to reach.
Yenifer Portillo often wonders why she cannot submit essays, listen to audio recordings, or watch prerecorded school videos as some of her friends do. It’s the same reason the family cannot watch movies online, her mother explains. The same reason Mami cannot access job-hunting sites, although she and her husband are desperate to replace the restaurant work they lost to the pandemic.
“We just don’t have enough Internet,” Maria Silvia Portillo tells her daughter.
The 5-year-old nods. But when the kindergarten teacher phones again, with yet another bevy of activities she cannot complete, Yenifer can’t help herself.
“Mami,” she asks, “but why can’t I do my homework?”