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The FCC should let itself do more to keep Americans connected through the pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic has forced schools and workplaces to close all over the country, tens of millions of American children have started to attend classes online and tens of millions of American adults are now teleworking from home. This crisis has highlighted how many Americans lack high-speed wired broadband internet at home (approximately 141 million) and specifically how many school-age children are disconnected (as many as 12 million).

This digital divide did not happen by accident. It is the result of years of scorched-earth deregulation and consolidation pushed by large cable and broadband companies and a government that, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, believes that somehow the so-called “free market” will take care of the unconnected.

That is why, in this national emergency, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai was forced to beg broadband providers to sign up for his “Keep America Connected Pledge.” Under this pledge, companies promise not to terminate customers who cannot pay for 60 days. In addition, providers with Wi-Fi hotspots pledge to keep them open for 60 days so that anyone can use them. According to Pai, nearly 500 companies have now signed onto the pledge.

While taking the pledge is commendable, it’s not nearly enough to ensure that all Americans are connected during this time. Fixed and mobile broadband companies should also eliminate data caps and overage fees, permit tethering of mobile wireless service to computers, and increase bandwidth if necessary, at no charge, to ensure that everyone has access to fast, reliable broadband. They should expand, improve, and lower the price of low-income broadband programs or create such programs where they don’t already 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 part of the pledge.

One might think that during a national emergency, the chairman of the FCC wouldn’t have to plead with broadband providers to do what is necessary to ensure that every American is connected. But in 2017, at the behest of cable and broadband companies, the Trump FCC abdicated its responsibility to protect consumers and promote competition in the broadband market when it repealed its network neutrality rules. Not satisfied with simply eliminating the rules, which prohibited broadband providers from blocking, throttling, and otherwise favoring certain internet content and services, the Trump FCC blithely threw away its legal power to oversee the activities of these companies by reclassifying them as unregulated “information services” rather than regulated “telecommunications services.”

As millions of Americans rush to get online, the shortsightedness of the commission’s action becomes clear. A voluntary pledge isn’t adequate to ensure that Americans can work, learn, have access to health care, and communicate during this trying time. Without legal authority over broadband providers, the agency cannot hold any of those companies to their promises — they can simply walk away after 60 days or before. Nor can the FCC require broadband providers to take critical steps beyond the pledge, like relaxing data caps, providing low-cost or free connectivity, or other steps that would help those desperately in need during this crisis, if even on a temporary basis. The Communications Act of 1934 gives the FCC a great deal of 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 oversight over the broadband market not only can ensure that all Americans are connected now, it can ensure that they are connected when there isn’t a pandemic. A fully empowered agency can, among other things, 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 subsidy to low-income Americans for broadband. It can protect consumers from fraudulent billing, price gouging, and privacy violations and data breaches. And it can make sure that broadband networks are resilient, reliable and secure — a vital service now that so many Americans are sheltered in place and relying on digital networks for basic needs. The Trump FCC will do none of these things.

If the COVID-19 crisis has taught us anything, it is that we must remain connected when we are forced to be physically distant. Right now, millions of Americans cannot get broadband internet access, which is the primary way they can stay connected to their schools, workplaces, families, and friends. This alone is cause for Congress, the FCC, and the American people to take a long, hard look at our broadband policies now and in the future. Getting through this national emergency and being prepared for the next one depends on it.

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