Living through the coronavirus crisis without the Internet may be unimaginable for those whose workdays and schooldays now take place on the Web. Yet for millions of Americans, it’s everyday reality.
The digital divide was a problem before the pandemic. Now it’s an existential problem for students who can’t access live-streamed classes, for the ill who can’t virtually consult with a doctor, for isolated individuals who can’t find human connection on their laptop screens. The burden, as ever, disproportionately falls on the low-income, rural and nonwhite. There’s more the government can do today, and there’s an opportunity to lay the groundwork for the days to come.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) brought companies together early on in a pledge not to terminate service for customers unable to pay their bills; the agency has also waived some requirements for participation in its Lifeline subsidy program. Then there’s the Heroes Act passed by the House but not yet taken up in the Senate. It would provide $4 billion to help families afford service through the end of the emergency, plus $1.5 billion to bolster the E-rate program that could aid schools and libraries in providing hotspots and purchasing devices for students.