How's Your Kid's Online Schooling Going? Well, You're Reading This So You Have Internet
When schools were closed because of the coronavirus outbreak, the big question was how is our students learning? Most schools moved to online “distance learning," which is most effective if you're actually online. Roughly 39 percent of rural Americans can't access internet at speeds faster than a caged hamster running on a wheel, and lower-income Americans regardless of location are less likely to have internet access because the shit's expensive. The average cost of broadband internet is $60 a month. Teachers across the country are setting up Zoom meetings, and many students live in homes where the sole internet access is a pre-paid cell phone whose data limit is a single YouTube video.
The $2 trillion stimulus package doesn't address this. Democrats proposed $2 billion to help expand online access, but Senate Republicans weren't about to pay for anyone's free porn. Educators are trying to fill the gap. They're delivering quarantined take-home work and setting up mobile wi-fi hot spots. Corporations are even being less Grinchy: Google has offered free wi-fi to 100,000 families in rural California through the end of the school year, as well as 4,000 Chromebook laptops for students.
Like almost everything else connected to this pandemic, America is behind the curve. Distance learning was a reasonable contingency plan for when students can't safely access their school buildings, but the plan must meet the needs of all students and not just depend upon the kindness of corporations.
Elizabeth Warren had a plan for democratizing broadband access. She'd proposed $85 billion in federal money for building out broadband networks in rural communities. That's a significant increase from the current piddly $4.6 billion a year for rural broadband development. Kamala Harris proposed an $80 billion Broadband for the People program. Likely Democratic nominee Joe Biden would invest $20 billion in rural broadband infrastructure and triple funding to expand broadband access in rural areas.
Bernie Sanders had an especially ambitious plan to provide "$150 billion through the Green New Deal in infrastructure grants and technical assistance for municipalities and/or states to build publicly owned and democratically controlled, co-operative, or open access broadband networks." He would've required all internet providers to offer a Basic Internet Plan that provides affordable access to quality broadband service.
Donald Trump meanwhile offered rural America a digital rock. Last April, when we actually experienced spring, Trump spoke with Nancy Pelosi about a big broadband infrastructure deal, but it fell apart within weeks.
Broadband internet in the 21st Century is like electrical service in the early 20th Century. All of America benefitted when electricity became a reliable and affordable public utility, not simply a luxury for the wealthy. The focus right now is on supporting all the people who are now working from home, but we can't forget the people who didn't have decent internet access prior to this crisis. Whenever we emerge from the other end of this, the new normal must include dependable broadband access for all Americans, regardless of location or income level. We should also subsidize broadband access for all families with schoolchildren, because as Harris noted, the internet plays a vital role in helping a child connect to the world.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes reviews for the A.V. Club and make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."