Pandemic Plays on Both Sides of Digital Divide

A student participating in a class virtually
The emergence of virtual learning during the pandemic has put the digital divide even more into focus. (Image credit: iStock/Getty Images)

COVID-19 has become an issue in the debate between internet service providers and broadband deployment critics over how the Federal Communications Commission should view the digital divide. 

The FCC is charged annually with assessing whether advanced telecommunications is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion. Reports issued by Democrat-controlled FCCs have generally concluded it is not, while Republican commissions have tended to say it is. 

The difference is in statutory interpretation, but also in the conflicting views of the government’s role in making that happen.

The FCC, under Republican chairman Ajit Pai, who also backed a glass-mostly-full view when in the minority, sees the congressional mandate as being met by steady progress. For the agency, year-over-year progress is reasonable and timely.

Partisan Views Diverge

But Democrats look at the statute and see the “all Americans” part as meaning not until everybody has broadband, ideally defined both in terms of speed and price, and say it is not reasonable and timely. As for the demonstrable progress the Republicans see, Democrats point out that the FCC’s deployment data is bad. It’s a problem Congress is trying to fix via legislation and the FCC has conceded exists in launching a separate effort to get better data.

Enter COVID-19, which has put a spotlight on where broadband isn’t, given the need
for telemedicine, remote work and education, a near-term necessity that will likely move the world, long-term, into an even more virtual one.

The FCC has been seeking comment on how it should approach the 2021 report, including what impact the pandemic has and will have on broadband availability. In their initial comments, Common Cause, Next Century Cities and Public Knowledge invoked COVID-19 almost four dozen times to argue that, because of it, the FCC should, among many other things, up its baseline high-speed definition — to 100 Megabits per second both upstream and downstream versus the FCC’s current definition of 25 Mbps up and 3 Mbps down.

They also contend the FCC should boost its Lifeline broadband subsidy, recognize that mobile is not a substitute for fixed broadband, and recognize that the price of broadband, particularly in a pandemic that has left millions jobless, must be factored in.  

“As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic revealed, the digital divide continues to have a stranglehold on tribal lands, people of color, seniors, people with disabilities, low-income populations and rural parts of the country,” the advocacy groups told the FCC. “The commission must meet the enormity of this moment and scrutinize whether every American has an equal opportunity to participate in a digital society.”

That includes participating in the video streaming revolution that has also been fueled by a stay-at-home population. According to the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, the White House’s chief communications policy adviser, the share of Americans who view online video grew from 45% of the population to 70% from 2013 to 2017. “Since then, many popular new streaming services have launched, including Disney Plus, Apple TV Plus and HBO Max, which are likely to increase the proportion of internet users watching online videos,” they said. 

And as to whether broadband deployment is reasonable and timely? “Even though Americans nationwide need affordable and reliable broadband connections to comply with remote learning, work-from-home orders and telemedicine programs, more reliable and affordable high-speed connections are still a distant reality for millions,” they argued.

ISPs: We’ve Delivered

ISPs in their comments also talked about the pandemic, but argue the crisis has shown how deregulatory policies have spurred the deployment and investment that have allowed the networks to handle the new demands on their networks. ACA Connects, which represents smaller and midsized independent broadband ISPs, told the FCC that the pandemic put networks to the test, “and they delivered.” It argued that one of the reasons the networks could handle the increased traffic and shifting stay-at-home usage patterns was because of the FCC’s light-touch regulatory regime.

USTelecom agreed, telling the FCC “it is precisely because of unanticipated circumstances such as these that the commission going forward needs to stay on track and adopt deregulatory policies that remove barriers to deployment.”

NCTA-The Internet & Television Association was also part of that chorus, telling the FCC that broadband deployment has been reasonable and timely “notwithstanding the COVID-19 crisis.” NCTA, which represents the larger MSOs, buttresses its argument that “more consumers are receiving faster broadband from providers using a variety of technologies,” which it said  meets the “reasonable and timely standard,” by also pointing to network resiliency during the pandemic. It pointed to its COVID-19 network dashboard, which it said shows cable customers “have not experienced any material degradation of service during the now more than six months of the COVID-19 crisis.” 

It said those customers are using services “more than sufficient to work and learn from home, including multiple simultaneous connections to video conferencing applications,” and at the current 25/3 Mbps high-speed definition that, in NCTA’s view, should remain the standard.

Election Will Tell

How those arguments affect the final report, which won’t be issued until next year, will depend on whether an administration under President Donald Trump or Democratic nominee Joe Biden administration does the reporting.

A Section 706 report under chairman Pai, or a new Republican chairman, will almost certainly continue to find deployment reasonable and timely. A Biden-appointed chairman is as likely to side with the glass-half-empty arguments, a conclusion that could lead to broadband price regulation.

The Democratic FCC commissioners both argue that deployment is not reasonable and timely and the agency must do more to make it so.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.