March 23, 2023

WASHINGTON – Kimberly Vasquez, a high school graduate in Baltimore, had a grave problem early on in the pandemic. She didn’t have fast internet service in her home, but all of her classes were online.

Marigold Lewi, a sophomore at the same school, has been regularly dismissed from Zoom classes because of her slow home connection.

Ms. Lewi spent a lot of time explaining Zoom’s absences to the teachers. Ms. Vasquez sat outside the local libraries to use her Internet access and used her phone at times. The two helped drive a successful public campaign for better, free service for low-income families in the city.

“It was very messy,” said Ms. Vasquez. “We had to do that because no one else would change anything.”

A year after the pandemic turned the country’s digital divide into an education emergency, President Biden, who is inheriting the problem, puts affordable broadband a top priority, comparing it to efforts to spread electricity across the country. Its $ 2 trillion infrastructure plan, announced on Wednesday, includes $ 100 billion to expand high-speed Internet access to every home.

The money is said to improve the economy by allowing all Americans to work, get medical care, and take classes from anywhere. Although the government has spent billions on the digital divide in the past, efforts have not been able to close it in part because people have different problems in different areas. Affordability is the main culprit in both urban and suburban areas. In many rural areas, the internet service is not available at all due to the high installation costs.

“We will ensure that every single American has access to quality, affordable high-speed Internet,” Biden said in a speech on Wednesday. “And when I say affordable, I mean it. Americans pay too much for the internet. We will lower the price for families who have service now. We’ll make it easier for families who don’t have affordable service to get it now. “

Longtime supporters of the universal broadband network say the plan, which requires Congressional approval, may finally come close to eliminating the digital divide, a persistent problem regulators first identified and identified during the Clinton administration. The plight of unaffiliated students during the pandemic added urgency.

“This is a vision document that says every American needs and should have access to affordable broadband,” said Blair Levin, who led the 2010 National Broadband Plan at the Federal Communications Commission. “And I’ve never heard of a White House before.”

Some advocates of expanded broadband access warned that Mr Biden’s plan may not completely resolve the gap between digital owners and non-owners.

The plan promises to give priority to municipal and nonprofit broadband providers, but would continue to rely on private companies to install cables and erect cell towers across much of the country. One concern is that even with all the money allocated to these projects, companies are not getting it worth the effort. During the electrification boom in the 1920s, private providers were reluctant to install masts and corded lines hundreds of kilometers in sparsely populated areas.

There are also many questions about how the administration is going to approach affordability. It’s one thing to extend service to households. It’s another thing to do it cheap enough for people once it gets there. The White House had little details on Wednesday, but stressed that subsidies alone are not a long-term solution.

Plus, the money would arrive more than a year after the schools closed with the pandemic, and as many would open their doors again. As a result, many students without a good internet connection have already fallen a full year behind.

About 25 percent of students do not have adequate broadband at home, with Native American, Black and Latino children being hardest hit, said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the teachers’ union.

Mr. Biden’s plan would be tested in places like Chinle, a Navajo Nation school district in northeast Arizona. As with electrification, the most remote homes – especially on aboriginal lands – were the last to go into operation. Today, many households in this remote corner of the state do not have access to broadband or speeds so slow that even a device at a Zoom conference could consume most of the bandwidth. Cell phone service is absent or spotty in many parts.

The school is slowly returning to the classroom. However, until last week, 31 buses were shipped daily with homework printout kits and flash drives with videos showing math, science, history and English lessons. The graduation rate is expected to be nearly 60 percent this year, compared to 77 percent last year, said Quincy Natay, the superintendent of the Chinle Unified School District.

“It’s been a tough and challenging year,” said Natay. “There has been a lot of learning loss for this group.”

Congress has approved more than $ 10 billion in recent months to make broadband more affordable and to put more laptops and other devices in the hands of students. Of that funding, the FCC is working to figure out how to distribute $ 7.2 billion for broadband services, appliances, and possibly routers and other gadgets for households with school-age children.

In February, the FCC announced $ 50 to $ 75 broadband broadband grants for low-income families of $ 3.2 billion that Congress granted in December to fund the digital emergency differential. Both programs include one-time emergency funding to address broadband access problems exacerbated by the pandemic.

The government’s $ 100 billion plan aims to connect even the most isolated residents: the 35 percent of rural homes with no access. In these areas, the White House will focus on the “future-proof” technology, by which analysts understand fiber optic and other high-bandwidth technologies. The administration highlighted its support for networks operated by local authorities, nonprofits and rural electrical cooperatives. Several states have banned municipal broadband networks, and the FCC failed in its attempts to lift those bans during the Obama administration in court.

The Biden infrastructure plan is facing a difficult path in Congress. Republicans have cut the cost. They even argue over definitions of broadband. Republicans are opposed to some proposals to require faster broadband standards – for example, 25 megabits for downloads and up to 25 megabits for uploads, which they think is too high a bar for providers in rural areas. For example, these speeds would allow multiple family members to hold video conferences.

“I believe this would make it more difficult to serve the communities that don’t have broadband today,” Michael O’Rielly, a former FCC commissioner, told the House’s trade committee last month.

Educators campaigned for Congress throughout the pandemic to expand broadband across the country. When there was little relief in sight, some took matters into their own hands.

Last April and over the summer, Massachusetts’s Brockton School District administrators bought more than 4,000 hot spots with their own funds and a federal loan. They were able to reduce the proportion of students without high-speed internet or equipment from about 30 percent to about 5 to 10 percent.

Superintendent Mike Thomas said the district is starting to return to classrooms and will most likely be fully personal by fall. But he plans to keep many aspects of distance learning, especially after-school tutoring.

In Baltimore, where an estimated 40 percent of households lack high-speed internet, community students and activists struggled to raise awareness of their circumstances. Ms. Vasquez and Ms. Lewi protested Comcast, the dominant provider, for better speeds and lower costs for its highly regarded, low-income program. Your group, Students who organized a multicultural and open society also campaigned for Maryland lawmakers and the city to prioritize affordable broadband for low-income households.

“We had no options and we deserved better,” said Ms. Vasquez.

Adam Bouhmad and some community activists began installing antenna mesh networks that use Baltimore closed school hotspots to connect surrounding homes. Through a system of antennas and routers manipulated by the jury, the group received from Mr Bouhmad, Waves, a cheap or free internet service for 120 low-income families.

Mr Biden’s promise to support alternative broadband providers could include projects like the one led by Mr Bouhmad, who said the past year had shown how little broadband options had left Baltimore residents in the lurch.

“Upfront investments in infrastructure and Internet service provider support are fantastic,” said Bouhmad. He added that residents in places like Baltimore would continue to need government subsidies and that administration should focus on the cost of broadband as a major hurdle.

“Availability is not synonymous with accessibility in terms of price and user experience,” he said.