Their first major opportunity could come as part of a new coronavirus stimulus package, a top priority for Biden as he prepares to enter the White House in January. The president-elect previously endorsed a House-passed relief bill that includes $4 billion in emergency funds to help low-income Americans stay online in a pandemic that has left tens of millions out of work and strapped for cash. Biden also reaffirmed his commitment to universal broadband on Tuesday as part of a broader preview of his economic-recovery agenda.
Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), a top Biden ally who led a broadband task force this year, said he “absolutely” expected the president-elect to move aggressively on the issue within his first 100 days in office. He acknowledged this week that lawmakers “still expect to get some opposition from Republicans” on additional spending, but he expressed optimism that the inequalities brought to light by the worsening coronavirus pandemic might spur Congress to act.
“Broadband in this century must be treated as electricity was in the 20th century,” Clyburn said.
For years, U.S. policymakers have warned about the persistent nature of the country’s digital divide, the lingering gap between those who can access the Internet unfettered and those, even in 2020, who cannot. But the pandemic has brought the consequences of a lack of connectivity into sharp relief, particularly as states again are shutting down schools and businesses — and forcing families to turn to the Web to do their jobs, complete their classwork, order their groceries or keep in touch with their loved ones.
“Students can’t go to school without it. Patients can’t engage in telehealth without it. Governments can’t reach all their citizens with the services people expect unless there is access to it,” said Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, in an interview. “If there is a silver lining in 2020, it is that all of this has become clear to people. The problem was here before; it just wasn’t as understood as it is now.”
More than 8 million households, containing nearly 17 million children, may lack access to high-speed broadband, according to an analysis commissioned by the Alliance for Excellent Education, the National Urban League and other advocacy groups issued in August. More than 7 million children also do not appear to have a desktop, laptop or tablet computer, the report found. In many cases, researchers said students are forced to rely on inadequate technologies and Web connections and risk falling behind in their education.
This so-called homework gap — along with grim tales about families forced to access free Internet from fast-food parking lots and other public spaces — prompted U.S. regulators to try to help bring more children online earlier in the pandemic. The Federal Communications Commission made it easier for schools to provide tools, such as mobile hotspots, to students who can’t get online on their own. And AT&T, Comcast and other major carriers instituted programs to help people who fall behind on their bills, part of a connectivity pledge they signed with the FCC.
But that pledge formally expired over the summer, and a wide array of educators, teacher unions and public-interest watchdogs have contended for months that many of these other programs are insufficient, particularly as the pandemic stretches into next year. Instead, they have called for billions of dollars in new broadband spending to improve connectivity and ensure students are able to get online — and stay online — even after the pandemic abates.
On Thursday, 60 groups representing educators, librarians, school counselors and students called anew on Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress to dispatch $12 billion in emergency funding just for the FCC’s primary education program, called E-Rate. They described it as the “quickest, most efficient” and most equitable way to “help ensure K-12 students have Internet access from homes and appropriate connected devices.”
“Congress must face up to this issue right now,” wrote the groups, which included the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association and the American Library Association, in a letter they shared with The Washington Post. “Without specific, targeted funds to help students who do not have Internet access at home — whether it is Internet service, devices or both — we are denying students the fundamental right to an education.”
Many Democrats say they intend to focus their efforts over the next few months in delivering additional broadband aid. Biden, for one, endorsed $20 billion in fresh broadband spending during the 2020 presidential race, as his campaign promised to “expand broadband, or wireless broadband via 5G, to every American,” including those in hard-to-reach rural areas.
In an early sign of his continued interest, Biden on Tuesday met with business leaders including Satya Nadella, the chief executive of Microsoft, who encouraged the president-elect to make Internet access a national priority, the company confirmed. As the meeting wrapped, and Biden delivered his remarks, he stressed the need for future economic recovery efforts to prioritize “high-speed broadband for every American household.”
A spokeswoman for Biden’s White House transition team declined to comment, pointing to the president-elect’s past remarks.
Democrats in Congress, meanwhile, say they plan to revive a flurry of legislative efforts next year. House Democrats had advocated for $4 billion in emergency spending to help families who fall behind on their Internet bills as part of their broader $2.2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package, a version of which they adopted again in October. The bill, called the Heroes Act, has faltered amid broader opposition from Republicans — but Democratic policymakers say they have not abandoned these and other ideas to augment education spending and fund efforts to map the country’s connectivity.
“It would certainly be great if we can do something in the lame duck,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, just hours after reports surfaced that congressional leaders intend to restart stimulus talks. “It’s gotta be done; we don’t have a choice.”
Clyburn, meanwhile, pledged that House Democrats plan to mobilize and resume pushing long-term broadband proposals, including an infrastructure bill he wrote that sets aside $100 billion for new investments in high-speed Internet. The bill cleared only the Democratic-led House, ultimately faltering before it ever reached the Senate, as GOP Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) refused to bring it up for a vote — raising fresh questions about the party’s prospects for greater success next year.
“There was a time, not that long ago, when Washington saw broadband as nice-to-have, not need-to-have,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, the senior-most Democrat at the FCC, an agency that will be run by Democrats after Biden’s inauguration in a matter of weeks. “This pandemic has forever changed that.”