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Mar 17, 2020

The COVID-19 crisis is making the internet more available

There's plenty of bandwidth to go around. Now access is shifting.

Millions of people and more every day are working or learning from home.  That means we need the internet now more than ever. That includes Wi-Fi, virtual private networks to connect securely to work and broadband.

When it comes to the digital divide and making sure everyone has access, some internet service providers are stepping up. Spectrum is offering 60 days of free access to homes with kids in kindergarten through 12th grade or to college students, if they don’t already have it. Comcast said it’s doing the same for low-income households in its service areas.

But can our digital infrastructure take this on? How can companies and even cities prepare for such a massive unplanned experiment?

Jonathan Reichental is the former chief information officer for the City of Palo Alto, California. He told me there’s enough infrastructure, but it isn’t always evenly distributed.

Jonathan Reichental: There is available bandwidth in the U.S. The big telcos have built some significant infrastructure across the country. What we’re gonna have to see is communities get access to that broadband. In the United States, there are still 19 million people who don’t have access to broadband. Part of the problem is it can be a little expensive for many homes, and also some communities don’t have the prerequisite technology in place. So maybe having millions of Americans all of a sudden do remote work, it’s going to act as a strong encouragement for government intervention, more spending and for the telco companies to also step up as well where there are still gaps.

Molly Wood: We have seen even just in the last few days companies say that they’re going to drop data caps, that they’re going to increase speeds for lower-income users. Is there going to be any going back after that?

Reichental: Yeah, I think we’re going to have a lot of questions. I mean, I hope people continue to wash their hands after this event is over. These are good behaviors, and we need to continue them. Some of our experience suggests that, you know, if we get over this, we may go back to our old routine and all the wonderful things that the private sector is doing to step up right now, that may all revert to the way we’ve been doing things. I don’t know the answer to that. It’ll depend how things really start to progress over the next few weeks. I think if it’s long term, which I certainly hope not, people will get used to it. And there might be a greater inclination to keep it in place or perhaps offer access to lower-income communities, providing them with those reduced costs and more access as we see more people effectively adopting remote work because it works.

Wood: Do you think this is the moment when we will all say, “Oh, hey, turns out the internet really is a utility”?

Reichental: Well, I think we’d all agree now that the internet is magical. It’s absolutely magical. I mean, look what it’s enabling us to do. Not only have millions and millions of workers all over the world worked from home, but it’s allowing scientists to collaborate in a speed that we’ve never seen before, collaborating on vaccines, sharing information between science organizations and governments working on the medicine. So the internet, you know, we have to say, is quite a magical platform for humanity.

Wood: Let’s talk about security for a bit. What do companies have to do? I mean, some companies work with very sensitive information and require people to be on site to access it. What can they do?

Reichental: There’s got to be a continual investment in cybersecurity. This is not a, you know, you write a check once and you’re good to go. You’ve got to build a little department, depending on the size your organization. If you’re a big airline company or a bank, you’re going to have a huge security organization. And you’re going to be investing likely, you know, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars a year in keeping the security good. So on the enterprise side, for sure, absolutely, for sure that the costs are high, and they’re continuing to increase. On the home side, there’s enough low-cost tools. There’s actually a handful of VPN software that a home user can can install that’s free, and then there’s some premium services that you know, are relatively low cost. So if you’ve got VPN, some backup software, antivirus malware, you’re in good shape, but in the 21st century, can’t guarantee that you’re going to have absolute security. This is something we’re going to have to live with and fight for a long time.

Related Links: more insight from Molly Wood

For what it’s worth, I took a quick Twitter survey on Monday to see how everyone’s internet was performing. Most people said it was doing fine, although I guess if they were offline, they wouldn’t have been able to answer.

Also watching
Last week, President Donald Trump announced that Google was building a website to screen people for COVID-19 testing. That seemed to be a surprise to Google. It directed reporters to its subsidiary Verily, a life sciences company that’s mostly known for life-extension tech. But then ACTUAL Google said: No, we ARE totally doing what the president said and launching this site.

Which it did on Monday, but only for people the San Francisco Bay Area. In order to use the website, you have to sign up for a Google account, or have one already, and agree that whatever information you provide will be shared with Google, the California Department of Public Health, federal, state and local health authorities, as well as “other entities that assist with the testing program.” Although it does say that the information will be used to improve the testing program and for public health purpose, considering that we really should be in a position where we can call a doctor or public health official directly, or use telemedicine to find out whether we need a test, this does not feel like a trade we should have to make.

In another kind of interesting note, Amazon announced Monday that it will hire 100,000 new warehouse and delivery workers to help keep goods and groceries moving during the COVID-19 outbreak. That is interesting for a couple of reasons: One, should people be working side by side in warehouses? And here in the San Francisco Bay Area, officials announced a shelter in place order that may be spreading to other cities even as you’re hearing this. Essential services are exempt from the order. I wonder if that explains why Jeff Bezos has reportedly been calling the White House daily.  Is Amazon about to be declared an essential service? Strange times.

Also, some work-from-home do’s and don’ts.

A lot of people are going to tell you that you have to get dressed every day like you’re going to work. I’m here to say you really DO NOT. You should get out of your bathrobe. But you can definitely get into sweats.

DO go outside. Take meetings while you’re on a walk. It’ll clear your brain and you can pretend you’re Steve Jobs, who basically invented the walking meeting.

DON’T shop online for shoes while you’re in the middle of a video conference call like you would usually do in a meeting, because if you’re sharing your screen, everyone is going to bust you.

As always, DON’T forget to mute your microphone if you’re not talking.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer