The past year in pandemic has proved that broadband access is a necessity, not a luxury.
Despite a flurry of federal, state, local and volunteer efforts, thousands of Washingtonians still don’t have reliable access to high-speed internet service.
Ongoing efforts, including new funding for two Federal Communications Commission programs, will help in the short term. The FCCs federal Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, launched last week, will assist low-income households with discounted monthly internet bills, making home broadband access more affordable. Though the program will provide some relief to millions of Americans who qualify, it’s neither a comprehensive nor sustainable long-term plan.
The discounts will be available only through internet service providers (ISPs) that volunteer to offer them, and only until six months after the pandemic has passed — less if the money runs out. Already, The Washington Post has called out various ISPs for making it difficult to access discounted service or tacking on restrictions that jack up the price.
Schools and libraries are also getting help, thanks to an additional $7.17 billion infusion to the FCC’s E-Rate (Education-Rate) program. Championed by U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, those funds will be awarded through a competitive application process to offset these institutions’ costs of internet service and necessary hardware to get students and patrons online. Those, too, are limited, one-time funds.
The Washington State Department of Commerce’s Drive-in Wi-Fi program will continue offering temporary access for people from the parking lots at hundreds of locations, including public buildings and private partner businesses, according to a department spokeswoman. But actually bringing broadband home is a heavier lift.
New state legislation will open doors, allowing public utility districts and ports to sell broadband access directly to customers, with state and federal investments helping fund some expansion. But there’s a reason private industry hasn’t already tapped remaining markets: They are expensive to serve.
President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan, mired in Congress, would dedicate $100 billion to broadband infrastructure. State lawmakers included $411 million for local broadband infrastructure in the 2021-23 capital construction budget. But patchwork solutions don’t eliminate the need for a long-term, sustainable plan.
Last December, Seattle Times columnist Brier Dudley argued for a new federal broadband plan. As he noted, it’s been a decade since Congress took a comprehensive look at the problem. And while more Americans are connected now, the three barriers to universal access — connection, affordability and quality — remain essentially unchanged.
The need for connectivity will last long after the public-health emergency subsides. Only a unified strategy and ongoing commitment of resources will get everyone online.