Mar 23, 2020

Getting internet access to everyone during a pandemic is not an easy job

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States and cities have the ability to expand that access, but there are lots of laws that make it complicated.

As more cities and states ask people to stay at home, we are all relying heavily on our internet access. This means the digital divide is more obvious than ever, as tens of millions of Americans still don’t have access to reliable high-speed internet. 

Telecom companies and internet service providers are extending service and offering free sign-ups. But there are still barriers, not least of which are regulations and rules against local internet networks. I spoke with Christopher Mitchell, the director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative. I asked him what he’s seeing in the short term. The following is an edited version of our conversation.

Christopher Mitchell (Photo courtesy of Mitchell)

Christopher Mitchell: There’s a lot of people who are signing up for service who didn’t have it before, or maybe they’re going to a better provider. We’re seeing in areas that have one or more cases of the virus that some of the [internet service providers] are seeing record sign-ups, in some cases twice the previous record of a daily number of new customers. That, unfortunately, means that we need ISPs to have protocols for connecting people, because the number of service providers have actually stopped going into people’s homes and doing new connections while they figure out how to handle this. We will need to find a way in which we can do new connections, because I think this connectivity is just going to become more and more important.

Molly Wood: So you’re saying it is literally spurring people who had not had broadband access before to sign up? But that they might still just be waiting until this is over — whenever that is — for it to be installed?

Mitchell: Yes, that appears to be the case. I think this is even more important, because many ISPs — from the biggest companies to small, local companies — are finding ways of doing 60-day or 90-day free periods for low-income families to get signed up. I think that’s really important for families that right now might be having to leave their home in order to go to a community Wi-Fi spot. We don’t want people to leave the home unless it’s essential, so if we can get people connected in the home, that would be the ideal situation.

Wood: In the more medium term, the Trump administration is pushing for a giant stimulus package. Do you think that we’ll see some of that go toward helping people get online?

Mitchell: I think we’re seeing a lot of interest in that. I just don’t know exactly what we can do in the medium term to get those connections going. I would think one of the things is to definitely support the internet service companies that are extending their networks and maybe giving them some relief. One of the things we definitely need to do is to let communities deal with this in their own ways. There are many states that currently limit the ability of local governments to build their own networks. We really need to see those limits go away so that communities are free to expand internet access as rapidly as they can.

Wood: I want to talk about that, specifically. We’ve seen states, cities, big ISPs be really resistant to the idea of community broadband, municipal broadband. What might happen there? How can policy help restart some of those projects?

Mitchell: The first is that the states themselves could change the laws. There are 19 states that limit local authority to build networks, partner with local companies, and they could decide tomorrow to get rid of those limitations. The other option would be for the federal government to strike them down in some manner. Congress could do that directly, or it could condition aid of certain kinds to those states to say, “If you’re going to limit broadband investment in your state, then we’re not going to give you federal dollars to expand the networks.” This is something that really gets to me, because we’ve spent billions of dollars on networks that are obsolete, and in fact, we still are through the remainder of 2020 writing checks to big companies that are delivering very slow DSL that does not qualify as broadband. Those big companies have all had their shot, and it’s time to have an all-hands-on-deck approach to expanding internet access.

Wood: Internet infrastructure is no joke, in terms of establishing, but is this a moment for startups at all?

Mitchell: This is going to be a real test for the wireless ISPs, some of whom are coming through and their networks are doing fine. Others are not as good technologically, and I’m afraid their networks will not work — this is more common in rural areas. I do think we will get a winnowing of the networks that will succeed when we have a sudden shift in demand, as we are currently experiencing. Those that don’t make it — I don’t know if anyone’s done this, I haven’t seen it — but there’s an organization called the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. They have a page that is collecting all of the different offers for low-income families. I think about 10% of kids in school do not have broadband at home. Their website is digitalinclusion.org. They’re a great group that’s really trying to get information out about where families can go to get access if they do not have it at home.

A 9-year-old student works on a Chromebook during home-schooling on March 18 in New Rochelle, New York. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

Broadband Now, a site that advocates for universal access to broadband — no pun intended — says that in addition to the 19 states with firm laws forbidding local broadband, an additional six have some kind of regulatory roadblocks that stop local companies from building out networks. You can read its reports on municipal broadband roadblocks here.

In the U.S., 67% of consumers get their broadband internet access from cable providers, and the vast majority of those subscribers are with either Comcast or Charter, according to data from Leichtman Research Group. Also, according to data from the Federal Communications Commission and compiled by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, as of 2016, 129 million Americans only had one broadband internet option to choose from. That is a lot of pressure on a few networks to keep their services up and running in a pandemic.

Also watching

Last week, I told you Netflix would reduce its streaming quality in the European Union to help decongest networks there. That list now includes YouTube and Amazon Prime Video. Speaking of YouTube, the network says it’s now going to display a row of verified videos on its homepage that offer authoritative information about COVID-19 and the coronavirus as it tries to combat misinformation. When I went to YouTube on Friday, the shelf of videos was there, but it was below the fold. I ended up watching David Dobrik eat spicy wings and then I felt really ashamed.

Yelp is another tech company responding to the pandemic, saying it will waive advertising fees and offer free upgrades and services to restaurants and nightlife businesses in hopes to drive traffic to businesses that might be offering delivery or virtual services like tutoring or yoga. It will add an option for contact-free delivery in any checkout or delivery options through its partner Grubhub. 

Finally, Amazon is committing $20 million through its AWS cloud services unit to provide technology and research grants, with the goal of creating a faster and more affordable — and, therefore, more widely available — test for the coronavirus, because you cannot manage what you do not measure. 

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer