A 'Homework Hub' in New York City. Photo: Street Lab, Creative Commons license 4.0

In September, a viral photo showed two little girls in Salinas, California, sitting with laptop computers in a Taco Bell parking lot so they could use the WiFi signal to do their homework. It was an instantly iconic image of the pandemic, encapsulating the inequalities that made online schooling so much more difficult, or just plain impossible, for families who can't afford internet at home. Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo called for the state to make broadband available statewide to all students, and a crowdfunding campaign raised more than $130,000 for the girls' family after a local woman learned the family was in danger of being evicted.

More important for kids in Salinas, the Salinas City Elementary School District, which had already distributed some 8,245 Chromebooks to students, ordered a lot of WiFi hotspots to give to students who needed one, including the family of the two girls. And lots of people shook their heads and thought there's something very wrong with a country where children have to sit on concrete to be able to do their schoolwork, or rely on strangers on the internet to notice and help.


Which brings us to the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package that Joe Biden signed into law yesterday. Included in the measure is a $7.17 billion "Emergency Connectivity Fund" that will give funding to schools and libraries to make sure that students and families can get online from home. The Federal Communications Commission's acting chair, Jessica Rosenworcel, wrote Wednesday that the fund would address a "homework gap" that has always been serious, and that has only become more obvious during the pandemic — and her statement, too, referenced the "kids sitting outside of the fast food restaurant just trying to catch a Wi-Fi signal to go to class."

As Ars Technica explains, the FCC will first write rules to put the program into place and determine how the money will be distributed, after which the funds will be sent along to schools and libraries to help families get the broadband services and equipment they need to get online.

The funding could be used for Internet service fees and equipment including Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and "connected devices" such as laptops and tablets. The FCC will have to determine individual funding amounts, but the law allows for reimbursement of up to 100 percent of "reasonable" costs. [...]

The emergency fund would be available throughout the pandemic and for at least one year after the US declares the public health emergency to be over.

That emergency fund does have one shortcoming, though: It's designed to connect kids and families to broadband services that already exist, which will be enormously helpful in cities and larger towns.

But since a big part of the "digital divide" involves rural areas where broadband just plain isn't available, House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn (D-South Carolina) has reintroduced an ambitious bill to make sure broadband is available and affordable for everybody. Clyburn's bill, with the modest title "The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act," would allocate $94 billion to get high-speed internet to all parts of the country. A previous version of the bill passed in the House last year as part of an infrastructure package, but then it vanished in Mitch McConnell's turtle nest and was never considered in the Senate. This time around, Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) has introduced a Senate version of the legislation as well.

So what's in this puppy? (Ooh, we love puppies!)

  • $80 billion over five years to "deploy secure and resilient broadband infrastructure for communities nationwide, connecting unserved and underserved rural, suburban, and urban areas across the country," with the main emphasis being on communities that are unserved now, or are in "persistent poverty."
  • $5 billion over five years to provide "low-interest financing of broadband deployment."
  • $5 billion for "the rapid deployment of home internet service or mobile hotspots and other internet-connected devices" to get internet to students whose homes don't have it.
  • Funding for WiFi on school buses, especially on rural routes where rides to school tend to be lengthy.
  • A "dig once" provision requiring new road projects built with federal funds include broadband conduit — flexible plastic pipe that can be used for fiber optic cable — so new broadband in those areas won't require new excavation.
  • A new "Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth" within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration would coordinate funding and and development of broadband projects.
  • Service providers whose networks are built with the new funding would have to provide low-cost service options to all customers.
  • Low-income Americans would receive a $50 monthly discount on internet service in all parts of the country; that would increase to $75 a month for people on tribal lands.

In addition, the bill would guarantee "the right of local governments, public-private partnerships, and cooperatives to deliver broadband service," which is a hell of a big deal, since 22 states have laws prohibiting publicly operated internet services, according to a report from advocacy group Broadband Now. Why, it's almost as if commercial providers didn't want anyone cutting into their profits, even when their services are beyond the means of lots of people.

Clyburn told the Charleston Post and Courier that his Republican colleagues in the South Carolina congressional delegation support the bill — in 2020, he persuaded all members of the delegation to sign a letter calling for prioritizing rural broadband — but maybe not too publicly: "They're all for it. But that's not saying they're all going to vote for it."

Still, Clyburn is sounding pretty optimistic, and it certainly can't hurt his bill's chances that his endorsement in the 2020 South Carolina primary was the turning point in Joe Biden's getting the nomination. Not that he'd be so crude as to explicitly say Biden owes him a favor:

Now, we have some semblance of authority and power in the House and we have the votes in the Senate for it to become law. [...] And we got a person in the White House to sign it. So you might hear some giddiness in my voice.

And wouldn't you know it, now that the MONEY FOR 'MERCA, PLS pandemic relief bill has been signed, a great big infrastructure package is congressional Democrats' next big legislative priority. Depending on whether any Republicans are in the mood to actually solve problems in this country, that bill may or may not end up being passed through the budget reconciliation process like the COVID relief bill was.

For all of Wonkette's coverage of "COVID Bill: What Even Is That Thing?" see below


[Ars Technica / Rep. James Clyburn / Charleston Post and Courier / Broadband Now / Photo: Street Lab, Creative Commons license 4.0]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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