Because the pandemic of COVID-19 has forced schools and workplaces across the country to close, tens of millions of American children have started taking online classes and tens of millions of American adults are now teleworking at home. This crisis has made clear how many Americans do not have broadband broadband Internet at home (approximately 141 million) and, in particular, how many school-aged children are disconnected (as many as 12 million).
This digital divide did not accidentally arise. It is the result of years of deregulation and scorched earth consolidation, pressured by major cable and broadband companies and a government that, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, believes the so-called “free market” will somehow take care of the disconnected.
Therefore, in this national emergency, FCC President Ajit Pai was forced to beg broadband providers to sign up for his ‘Keep America Connected Pledge’. Under this promise, companies promise not to end customers who are unable to pay for 60 days. In addition, providers with Wi-Fi hotspots promise to keep them open for 60 days for everyone to use. According to Pai, nearly 500 companies have now signed the pledge.
While the promise is laudable, it is nowhere near enough to ensure that all Americans are connected during this time. Fixed and mobile broadband companies should also eliminate data caps and additional costs, allow tethering of mobile wireless services to computers and increase bandwidth, if necessary, free of charge to ensure that everyone has access to fast, reliable broadband. They need to expand, improve and lower the price of low-income broadband programs or create such programs where they do not yet exist. Pai “urged” the broadband industry to do some of these things, and to their credit, some providers have. But knowing that most of them would never commit to such measures, Pai did not make them a promise.
You might think that during a national emergency, the President of the FCC doesn’t have to beg broadband providers to do what it takes to ensure every American is connected. But in 2017, on behalf of cable and broadband companies, the Trump FCC relinquished its responsibility to protect consumers and promote competition in the broadband market when it repealed its network neutrality rules. Not content with simply eliminating the rules that forbid broadband providers from blocking, restricting, and otherwise favoring certain Internet content and services, the Trump FCC simply dropped its legal authority to monitor the activities of these companies by reclassifying them as unregulated “information services” “instead of regulated” telecommunications services “.
As millions of Americans rush to go online, the shortsightedness of the committee’s action becomes apparent. A voluntary pledge is not enough to allow Americans to work, learn, access healthcare, and communicate during this difficult time. Without legal control over broadband providers, the service cannot deliver on any of these companies – they can simply walk away after 60 days or earlier. Nor can the FCC require broadband providers to take critical steps beyond the promise, such as easing data breaches, offering cheap or free connectivity, or other steps that would help those desperately in need during this crisis, even if only temporarily. The 1934 Communications Act provides the FCC with great flexibility to ensure that the public is protected during a national emergency. But when it comes to broadband internet access, this FCC is powerless.
An FCC with broadband market surveillance can not only ensure that all Americans are connected now, but can also ensure that they are connected when there is no pandemic. A fully competent agency could, inter alia, promote competition in the highly consolidated broadband market, which would lower prices and improve services. It can strengthen, expand and introduce competition and innovation into the Lifeline program, which gives a very small $ 9.25 grant to low-income Americans for broadband. It can protect consumers from fraudulent billing, price gouging, privacy breaches and data breaches. And it can help ensure that broadband networks are resilient, reliable, and secure – an essential service now that so many Americans are protected in place and rely on digital networks for basic needs. The Trump FCC will not do either of these things.
If the COVID-19 crisis has taught us anything, it is that we must remain connected if we are forced to be physically distant. At the moment, millions of Americans cannot access broadband internet, which is the main way to stay connected to their schools, workplaces, families and friends. This alone is reason for Congress, the FCC and the American people to take a close look at our broadband policy now and in the future. Going through this national emergency and being prepared for the next depends on it.