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Heather Gate: We’ve gained ground in fighting digital divide, let’s not lose it after pandemic is behind us

Over the years, expanding broadband access, adoption, and use has, at times, seemed like “The Little Engine That Could” — I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.

We work hard every day to chip away at the digital divide and continue up the hill with many other little engines.

Heather Gate

Looking back at the last 20 years, it’s often been a challenge to convince others that expanding high-speed internet to all people is possible — and that it’s not a luxury or privilege but a necessity.

Cue the pandemic.

Exactly a year ago, COVID-19 disrupted everyday life as we know it. Schools and businesses started closing down and people were sent home to quarantine — exposing the Digital Divide to the world. That’s when we began to see a seismic shift in what was viewed as important — and doable. In the words of the great composer Duke Ellington, “A problem is a chance for you to do your best.”

After years as a digital inclusion practitioner, I was amazed at how, in just a matter of months, we began to see key policy considerations and changes, the deployment of much-needed devices to school children, and new funding for important broadband infrastructure. Those include but are not limited to:

• The Coronavirus Aid, Recovery, and Economic Security (CARES) Act signed in March 2020 allocated $375 million for broadband and related technologies. The funding was intended to help states, local communities and Tribal communities address digital divide issues exacerbated by the pandemic. This included $50 million that was awarded to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) as an emergency investment to “enable libraries and museums to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, including by expanding digital network access, purchasing Internet-accessible devices, and providing technical support services to their communities.”

Additionally, the funding allocations included $200 million for the Federal Communications Commission to establish the Telehealth Program to increase telehealth services in rural areas and $125 million to the Rural Utilities Services for its broadband deployment pilot program and telehealth and distance learning program.

• The Keep Americans Connected Pledge that began in March 2020 called on broadband providers to promote assistance for Americans impacted by the disruptions caused by the coronavirus. In order to ensure that Americans do not lose their broadband connectivity as a result of these exceptional circumstances, the FCC chairman asked providers to take the Keep Americans Connected Pledge to not terminate services to customers (both business and residential) disrupted by the pandemic, to waive late fees, and to open Wi-Fi hotspots in communities that desperately needed them. Over 800 providers and associations signed the pledge to provide much-needed relief to millions of Americans. Additionally, many providers offered free or low-cost broadband plans and devices to customers.

• The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 signed in December 2020 included over $7 billion to help improve connectivity in the U.S. This included funding for a new temporary emergency broadband program for low-income households and the newly unemployed as a result of the pandemic. It also included funds to make telecommunications networks more secure, provide new grants for deploying new broadband networks in rural and Tribal areas, connecting minority communities, supporting telehealth, improving broadband maps, better coordination of federal broadband efforts, and more spectrum for 5G.

Most notable is the $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit Program that will provide reimbursements to participating providers for offering discounts on the price of broadband internet access service (and associated equipment), a connected device, or both, to an eligible household during the emergency period.

• Deployment of devices – when school lockdowns were instituted across the country, school districts arranged for parents to pick up devices such as hotspots and Chromebooks to support virtual learning. “In the months that followed, many states and school districts mobilized, using federal CARES Act funding, broadband discounts and partnerships with private companies to connect their students and enable online learning.”

• Policy changes to promote telehealth – The federal government temporarily lifted burdensome regulations on telehealth, making it more accessible for healthcare providers and patients. This was critical in limiting unnecessary exposure to the coronavirus. Some of those changes include offering waivers and regulator changes to make it easier for providers to offer services to Medicare and Medicaid patients, limiting restrictions on delivering telehealth services across state lines, and appropriating funding to telehealth.

Now, take a moment to think about this: We’re doing more than many thought we could do. There’s no reason we should stop doing it after COVID is behind us.

This, in my opinion, is what every single one of us should want our local, state, and federal leaders to remember as we turn the corner with the pandemic and more people receive the vaccine. While some of the measures implemented in response to the pandemic were temporary, we need to examine the lessons learned and move forward with new policies and ideas.

I am excited to return to the way things used to be — going to the movies and catching a whiff of popcorn with butter, and getting back to my mission to visit every state of the union with my daughter before she turns 18 years old.

While I have no doubt that more challenges lie ahead, I am cautiously optimistic that sometime soon the pandemic will end. And while I long for a return to normal, I am certain we are going to have to embrace a new normal — and that we MUST embrace it when it comes to digital inclusion.

Let’s take stock of what we did well in response to this crisis. Then, let’s do it even better in the future.

Don’t make students give back devices. The homework gap existed before COVID-19 and will persist unless we build on the momentum we’ve started. According to a report released by EdSurge in January, an analysis from Common Sense, Boston Consulting Group, and the Southern Education Foundation revealed that the various interventions to connect school children has made a dent in the Digital Divide – resulting in the estimated number of disconnected children dropping from 16 million to 12 million in December 2020.[7] Understanding that some devices were hurriedly deployed and may need to be used in the school building, districts need to evaluate efforts to implement a deliberate plan of bridging the homework gap.

Don’t make telehealth harder to use again. It’s a convenient, money-saving way to access healthcare. It’s also critical for areas that have lost hospitals. Let’s evaluate the temporary policy changes and find ways to make the changes that have benefitted patients and providers permanent.

Don’t stop funding investments for broadband infrastructure. Both rural and urban communities need good access to powerful internet at affordable prices. The most powerful catalyst to providing unserved and underserved communities with broadband is to know where they are. The Consolidated Appropriations Act included funding to improve broadband maps. This is important as accurate broadband maps are the key to linking available private or public funding resources to unserved or underserved communities.

Evaluate COVID-19 temporary programs and determine a path forward. Once the COVID-19 emergency is behind us and programs such as the Emergency Broadband Benefit come to a close, we must evaluate lessons learned and move forward with improved programs.

Let’s continue to work together. The COVID-19 pandemic mobilized private companies, nonprofits, associations, and local, state, and federal governments to seek immediate solutions to the disruptions that resulted from the lockdowns. These partnerships will continue to be important after the crisis — so why not continue to work together?

We simply cannot go back to the way things were in February 2020.

We cannot return to pre-COVID-19 times.

Sure, there are still big challenges. There are still millions who are on the wrong side of the Digital Divide. But we have come so far, and we are that much closer to digital equity in this country. With more people engaged, I see a brighter future.

America’s leaders must not lose the ground we’ve gained during the pandemic. Instead, let’s use it as a foundation for what’s next.

Heather Gate is the Vice President of Digital Inclusion at Connected Nation, a national nonprofit based in Bowling Green with a mission to find innovative solutions for expanding broadband access, adoption, and use.

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