The virus has made us go virtual. We bank online, shop for groceries online, spend time with loved ones online, attend schools online and even access a ballot online. Today, the Internet is an essential service, a public good. Like electricity or water, no one should be excluded from using it. But far too many Americans are cut off from access to affordable high-speed Internet even as more of our core systems go digital. Unchecked, the result will be an America even more unequal than the one we see today.

Broadband infrastructure has expanded in some places, but consumer access to broadband is receding. The reason? American broadband rates are some of the most expensive in the world. The Federal Communications Commission’s decision to roll back net neutrality in 2018 made it possible for broadband companies to charge more for certain services or content. Now, a trend of “tier flattening” means that the range of plans at different price points is being eliminated. This undermines the right of consumers to the option of an affordable plan.

Other roadblocks to access disproportionately impact people of color. To qualify for home broadband, for instance, consumers must pass a credit check, a system shot through historically with racial inequities. As a result, black and Latino households are less likely to have access to broadband. According to a 2016 Free Press report, nearly half of Americans without at-home Internet are in black and Hispanic households.

This year, we’ve seen exactly how much the digital divide matters. More than 55 million U.S. students in 124,000 shuttered schools were able to access education only through the Internet. An estimated 12 million of them could not do so from home. Some states got creative with hot spots and mobile WiFi buses. Some providers offered a window of free service. But when these ad hoc approaches inevitably failed, students had to use McDonald’s WiFi to turn in their homework.

Similar issues have emerged in health care for seniors. As providers quickly made the leap to telemedicine, seniors are stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide. According to the U.S. Census, about 1 in 3 households headed by someone 65 or older does not have access to a computer. From vital Centers for Disease Control and Prevention information to safe access to telehealth appointments, the lack of reliable Internet access has left millions of senior citizens effectively shut out from emergency telemedicine federal funding within the $8.3 billion coronavirus legislation specifically targeted for them. Overall, the intersection of disenfranchisement from the Internet based on race and age means that those most vulnerable to the pandemic are also the ones most isolated from the systems that will keep them safe.

The FCC’s Lifeline and E-Rate programs are meant to help expand access for low-income families and schools; however, both programs have failed to adequately address the crisis. While lawmakers have considered many proposals — including telecommunications expert Tim Wu’s suggestion to nationalize the 5G network, a suggestion telecom lobbyists and the FCC firmly quashed — action has so far fallen short. Hundreds of cities have built their own broadband networks or made local networks available to the public, but they’ve often been met with stiff resistance from corporate interests and protectionist legislation.

The United States has failed in the equitable delivery of this public good. The disparity will almost certainly lead to further inequity. No American should suffer the indignity of searching for Internet. Starbucks WiFi is not a social safety net.

Competition is key. As the Free Press reported, “Inadequate choice and competition among providers is one of the factors that results in entire market segments and demographic groups being underserved or unserved at a reasonable price.” Yet, on April 1, T-Mobile and Sprint quietly completed their controversial merger, gutting the competitiveness of the market unless an upstart competitor is standing by with $30 billion in starter funds. Lawmakers need to protect consumers from monopoly abuses and break up monopolies such as these that are driving up prices.

They must also pass sweeping legislation, on par with the greatest infrastructure initiatives in our nation’s history, that treats broadband as essential infrastructure and ensures affordable Internet in every American household. The House Democratic Plan to Connect All Americans to Affordable Broadband Internet, an $80 billion proposal put forward in April, is a good start.

The Internet was founded to connect. As access to America’s fundamental systems and basic rights moves online, now is the time to bridge the divide. As the events of 2020 have made clear, a quality Internet connection isn’t optional. Providing one to all Americans is a necessity.

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