WASHINGTON – Kimberly Vasquez, a high school student in Baltimore, faced a daunting problem once the pandemic began. She doesn’t have fast internet service in her house, but all of her classes are online.
Marigold Lewi, a sophomore at the same school, is frequently kicked out of Zoom classes because of slow home connectivity.
Ms. Lewi spent a lot of time explaining Zoom’s absence to the teachers. Ms. Vasquez sits outside of the local libraries to access their internet and sometimes uses her phone. Two of them have helped promote a successful public campaign for better and free service for low-income families in the city.
“It’s very chaotic,” said Ms. Vasquez. “We have to do this because nobody else will change everything.”
A year after the pandemic turned the nation’s digital divide into an educational emergency, President Biden is making affordable broadband a top priority, comparing it to efforts. electricity dissemination nationwide. His $ 2 trillion infrastructure plan, announced Wednesday, includes $ 100 billion to extend rapid internet access to every home.
The money aims to improve the economy by allowing all Americans to work, get medical care, and take classes from wherever they live. Although the government has spent billions of dollars on digital divide in the past, efforts have not been able to close it in part because people in different regions have different problems. Affordable prices are the main culprit in urban and suburban areas. In many rural areas, internet service is completely unavailable because of the high cost of installation.
“We will make sure that every American has access to high-speed, affordable, high-quality Internet,” Biden said in a speech Wednesday. “And when I say affordable, I mean it. Americans pay too much money for the internet. We will be offering discounts to those families now. “We will make it easier for families who do not have affordable services to get access now.”
Longtime advocates for global broadband say that this scheme, which requires congressional approval, could finally come close to overcoming the digital gap, a difficult problem for the first time. first identified and named by regulators in the Clinton administration. The plight of unrelated students during the pandemic was even more pressing.
“This is a vision document that says every American needs access and should have access to tape,” said Blair Levin, who directed the 2010 National Broadband Plan at the Federal Communications Commission. Affordable Broadband. “And I’ve never heard of that before from a White House so far.”
Some advocates of broadband access expansion warn that Mr. Biden’s plan may not fully resolve the divide between those with digital and those without.
The plan promises to give priority to municipal and non-profit broadband providers but will still rely on private companies to install cables and erect cell towers to remote parts of the country. It is worrisome that companies will not consider the effort worth their time, even with all the money spent on those projects. During the electrification boom of the 1920s, vendors believed to be reluctant to install stakes and chains hundreds of miles into sparsely populated areas.
There are also many questions about how the government has plans to address affordability. That’s one thing for extending service to home; it’s another way to make it cheap enough for everyone when it gets there. The White House released details on Wednesday, although it stressed that subsidies alone are not the long-term solution.
In addition, the money will come more than a year after the pandemic closes schools and many people begin to reopen. As a result, many students without a good Internet connection lag behind for a year.
Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, the association of teachers, said about 25% of students do not have enough broadband at home, with Native American, Black and Latino children being severely affected. most severe.
Mr. Biden’s plan will be tested in places like Chinle, a school district in Navajo Nation in northeast Arizona. For electrification, the most remote homes – especially on indigenous land – have ultimate service. Today, many homes in an isolated corner of the state do not have access to broadband or the speed is so slow, even a Zoom conference device takes up the bulk of the bandwidth. Mobile phone service is non-existent or faulty in many parts.
School is slowly starting to get back to the classroom. But as of last week, 31 bus trips have been sent out daily with printed homework packages and flash drives with videos of math, science, history and English lessons. Graduation rates are expected to be close to 60 percent this year, down from 77 percent last year, said Quincy Natay, director of Chinle Unified School District.
“It has been a difficult and challenging year,” said Natay. “A lot of learning loss has happened to this group.”
Congress has approved more than $ 10 billion over the past few months to help make broadband more affordable and get more laptops and other devices in the hands of students. Among those funds, the FCC is working to figure out how to distribute $ 7.2 billion for broadband services, potential devices and routers, and other devices to households with children. in school age.
In February, the FCC announced a $ 50 to $ 75 broadband grant for low-income families from $ 3.2 billion by Congress in December to fund a digital divide. emergency. Both programs involve one-time emergency funding to address broadband access problems caused by the pandemic.
The government’s $ 100 billion plan aims to connect even the most isolated residents: 35% of rural homes do not have access. In those areas, the White House said, it will focus on “anti-future” technology, which analysts see as other high-bandwidth and fiber-optic technologies. The government emphasizes its support for networks run and owned by cities, nonprofits and rural electricity cooperatives. Some states have banned municipal broadband networks, and the FCC has failed to attempt to overturn those bans in court during the Obama administration.
Infrastructure planning Biden faces a difficult road in Congress. Republicans have pushed back the costs. They even argue about the definition of broadband. Republicans don’t accept some proposals requiring faster broadband standards – such as 25 megabits for downloads and 25 megabits for upload, which they say is too high for carriers. in rural areas. For example, those speeds will allow more family members to participate in video conferencing.
“I believe this will make it harder to serve today’s broadband-free communities,” Michael O’Rielly, a former FCC commissioner, told the House Commerce Committee last month.
Educators lobbied Congress during the pandemic to expand broadband in the country. When they felt a bit of relief, a few solved the problem on their own.
Last April and over the summer, administrators at Brockton School District in Massachusetts purchased more than 4,000 hotspots with their own funding and a federal loan. They were able to reduce the proportion of students without high-speed Internet or devices to about 5 to 10 percent, from about 30 percent.
Superintendent Mike Thomas said the district is starting to return to classes and will most likely be fully available in the fall. But he plans to retain many aspects of distance training, he says, especially after-school tutoring.
In Baltimore, where an estimated 40% of households lack high-speed Internet, students and community activists have struggled to raise awareness of their plight. Ms. Vasquez and Ms. Lewi held rallies against Comcast, the dominant provider, for better speed and lower costs for its much publicly disclosed low-income program. Their team, Open Society and Multicultural Students, also lobbying Maryland and municipal legislatures to prioritize affordable broadband for low-income households.
“We have no choice, and we deserve better,” Ms. Vasquez said.
Adam Bouhmad and a number of community activists began installing antenna “networks” that exploit hot spots of closed Baltimore schools to connect homes around them. Through a system of antennas and routers cooperated by a jury, Bouhmad’s team, Waves, provided low or free internet service to 120 low-income families.
Mr. Biden’s promise to support alternative broadband providers could include projects such as the one led by Bouhmad, who said last year showed meager broadband options. how to wobble the people of Baltimore.
“Upfront investment in building infrastructure and supporting internet providers is great,” said Bouhmad. Residents in places like Baltimore will continue to need federal subsidies, he added, and governments should focus on the cost of broadband as a major hurdle.
“Availability is not equal to price and user experience accessibility,” he said.