As COVID-19 forced droves of Americans to work and learn from home in 2020, the importance of reliable high-speed Internet highlighted the digital divide in ways state leadership couldn’t ignore.
COVID-19 forced government to leave behind its offices, schools to close their doors and citizens to isolate themselves at home. In doing so, the insidious disease more than underlined the digital haves and have-nots, as a large segment of the American population has had to grapple with the demands of telework, distance learning and accessing online services.
State leaders, no matter their political affiliation, acknowledged the digital divide more than ever before in 2020, as evidenced by the sheer number of governors who talked about Internet access in their State of the State addresses. The overwhelming message in these speeches was that broadband expansion must be a priority in these unprecedented times — and this was before the pandemic brought access issues into even sharper relief. Many governors asked lawmakers to set aside millions of dollars to establish better connectivity. Perhaps Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam put it best when he said high-speed Internet “has become an economic necessity.”
Indeed, as 2020 progressed, states took different steps to facilitate more broadband. Mississippi awarded $65 million of its CARES Act money to electric cooperatives working on fiber buildouts, Indiana dedicated $51 million to its Next Level Connections Broadband Grant Program and Delaware is using $20 million of its CARES Act funding to address multiple digital equity concerns. Moreover, several states, including Alabama and Washington, began conducting surveys to gauge broadband levels within their borders. Continued action at the state level is likely, though the funding picture going into 2021 means the work will depend on additional federal support.
Quality Internet hasn’t only been a problem for everyday citizens. Public workers have also felt the effects of America’s inconsistent broadband infrastructure. In March, New York’s Office of Information Technology Services told the Times-Union that it faced several challenges related to keeping state employees connected for remote work. In August and September, West Virginia installed hundreds of Wi-Fi access points in all of its counties for online education. Sources told Government Technology that West Virginia’s education network wasn’t just for students — some teachers, both in K-12 and higher education, needed a way to upload lessons and remain in contact with their classes during the semester. Washington CIO Jim Weaver told GT that one IT employee was working from a Walmart parking lot to take advantage of the Wi-Fi — a creative, though untenable, solution demonstrating the universal nature of connection challenges.
The private sector will play a significant role in the ongoing broadband movement. In March, hundreds of Internet service providers signed the Federal Communications Commission’s “Keep Americans Connected” pledge, promising to waive disconnections and fees during the height of the pandemic. But given that the spread of COVID-19 persists at the end of 2020, governments must find new ways to work with companies to make sure that no citizen is left behind.
Over the summer, a federal appeals court voted in favor of an FCC ruling that says local governments may not excessively fine companies or otherwise “discriminatorily” delay 5G deployments on utility poles. Viewed as a blow to local government’s authority over decision-making about its own infrastructure, the ruling clears the way for broader deployment of these small cells throughout the country. And AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile have been aggressively expanding their 5G footprints into dozens of cities across the country, work that will roll over into the new year.
And although ubiquitous 5G has the potential to help close the digital divide, some experts fear that the cellular technology could exacerbate existing inequality, as 5G requires people to use compatible devices that cost more money. Indeed, what good is wider broadband availability if one still can’t afford it? In San Jose, Calif., the municipality expedited 5G installations on city infrastructure in exchange for digital inclusion investments from telecom companies, providing hope that government and industry can collaborate for the greater good.
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