The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) brought companies together early on in a pledge not to terminate service for customers unable to pay their bills; the agency has also waived some requirements for participation in its Lifeline subsidy program. Then there’s the Heroes Act passed by the House but not yet taken up in the Senate. It would provide $4 billion to help families afford service through the end of the emergency, plus $1.5 billion to bolster the E-rate program that could aid schools and libraries in providing hotspots and purchasing devices for students.
These efforts are laudable but insufficient. They focus primarily on helping those already online to stay that way. Better yet would be to expand Lifeline dramatically to bring Internet to people who don’t have it today — and better even than that are proposals in both chambers geared toward bridging the gap in the longer term.
Reps. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) have a massive proposal that aims to address the coverage issue from all angles. Their $80 billion bill recognizes that the coverage problem is actually two problems: deployment and affordability. Offering subsidies for broadband won’t do anything for communities that aren’t wired for access, and wiring the whole country won’t do anything for Americans who don’t have the money to spend on services.
Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) has something different: a proposal that would require the FCC to form a national plan for broadband, updating a 10-year-old strategy with the lessons we’re learning now. The coronavirus has come with a 200 percent network demand surge for some applications — it’s essentially a stress test for today’s countrywide system. The virus is also a window into how our reliance on the Web may grow, and how to ensure networks are harnessed efficiently for those modern needs.
Congress should do whatever it can during this crisis to bring the Internet to those who don’t have it and to ensure that those who do have it don’t lose it. But it should also be working for a country after the crisis, forged by the crisis, with resilient, secure and universally available connection.