The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Here’s what Biden can do right now to get more Americans on the Internet

President Biden conducts a virtual swearing-in ceremony for members of his new administration via Zoom at the White House on Wednesday.
President Biden conducts a virtual swearing-in ceremony for members of his new administration via Zoom at the White House on Wednesday. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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PRESIDENT BIDEN wasted no time on the day of his inauguration issuing an executive order that is as much a philosophy as it is a policy: “equity for all.” Today, there’s a glaring inequity in one crucial area that guarantees inequity in myriad others: Internet access.

Telemedicine, virtual schooling, job-hunting and more have all moved online during the pandemic, leaving behind the 77 million citizens without adequate home connections. Mr. Biden has signaled a desire to bring broadband to all; some version of the $20 billion aspiration laid out by his campaign looks likely to appear in the infrastructure plan coming from the White House next month. But this plan, which must address both availability and affordability if it is to succeed, will take time to fulfill, if it is fulfilled at all. Thankfully, there’s much this administration can do meanwhile.

Step one is obvious: Install a Federal Communications Commission chairman to replace Ajit Pai, the Republican who resigned this week. After that, the FCC can get to work getting its constituents on the Web. Two programs offer potential for immediate impact. The commission must bolster the E-Rate program, designed to help schools and libraries obtain affordable broadband, and suspend the illogical rule that prevents funding recipients from using the money to provide hotspots and purchase devices that keep kids online even when they’re at home.

Next comes the low-income Lifeline program. The incoming FCC majority must first reverse changes that have discouraged participation over the past four years, lifting eligibility obstacles for recipients and bringing exiled providers back into the fold. The agency must also further strengthen the program: The latest stimulus package effectively offers Lifeline a $3.2 billion boost in the form of broadband subsidies of $50 per month to those in need — much greater than the meager $9.25 per month Lifeline allows. The FCC’s role will be to dole out the infusion fairly and efficiently, which ideally will also teach it lessons about how to fix a flawed process.

The FCC should, for instance, cooperate with other assistance programs such as SNAP and Medicaid to ensure those eligible apply; it should also work with Congress to develop a more sustainable mechanism for funding that will allow for beefed-up subsidies even after this emergency aid runs out. And the commission should allow Lifeline recipients to use the benefit for multiple subscriptions so that they aren’t forced to choose between the mobile services crucial for day-to-day communication and the at-home Internet that has become essential for connecting to the wider world.

Bringing the Web to the whole country, and the whole country to the Web, will take time. But every step closer is a victory, and there are leaps that the new president can take right away.

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