WASHINGTON, December 29, 2021 – High-speed internet access has never seemed more essential than in another year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And that’s why, for the third in a three-part 2021 review, Broadband Breakfast is focusing on the impact of broadband in enabling benefits through expanded internet access.
Telehealth takes center stage
Because the pandemic is continually forcing closures and stay-at-home orders, the expansion of telehealth services has become a critical and normalized service this year, as remote health care is a safer and more efficient way to deliver care. High quality.
Broadband service is now important for maintaining overall health––experts have defined broadband service as a social determinant of health. The expansion of telemedicine in rural and tribal communities remains a barrier to better health outcomes for vulnerable populations.
The pandemic prompted Congress to extend waivers that allowed patients to take advantage of telehealth services. Experts say the waivers have encouraged the growth of telehealth systems and that investment in telehealth is needed to improve them.
Broadband access and affordability often limit the ability of vulnerable communities to take advantage of telehealth services. This year, massive investments have gone into funding telehealth grants for patients in need.
In December alone, the Federal Communications Commission announced more than $42.7 million in COVID-19 telehealth program rewards for healthcare providers who spend on telecommunications information services and devices. The awards also reimburse healthcare organizations for innovative ideas that connect patients to quality care through broadband.
For example, the Westchester County Health Care Corporation in Valhalla, New York, received $1 million to purchase remote monitoring software and video equipment, which will enable the creation of a “tele -USI” for the provision of remote care for hospitalized patients.
In October, a Senate subcommittee heard testimony that permanent regulatory flexibility to allow free or subsidized telemedicine services for patients would have a positive impact on patient care. It may also have a cost advantage: FCC commissioner Brendan Carr estimated that the widespread availability of telehealth could save the health care system $305 billion per year.
The FCC’s New Affordable Connectivity Fund
The Federal Communications Commission has served as an accelerator to better connect communities during the pandemic through its Affordable Connectivity Program. As families and students struggled to stay connected to work and school during the pandemic, the FCC took historic steps to help families who cannot afford internet service and devices.
Originally created as the Emergency Broadband Benefit, the Affordable Connectivity Program is the largest nationwide broadband subsidy program ever. The Emergency Broadband Allowance was replaced by the Affordable Connectivity Scheme after the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was passed in November.
The Affordable Connectivity Program transformed the Emergency Broadband Benefit into a long-term program that provides discounts to families for the purchase of Internet services and devices. Households can also benefit from discounts for the purchase of a laptop, desktop computer or tablet for their home.
The Affordable Connectivity Program enrollment period opens on December 31, 2021, allowing families to start the new year with the opportunity to receive new home devices. However, a long-standing challenge is to educate the community about these benefits. Policy experts agree that these benefit programs are not reaching the intended audience.
A November report showed that areas with low broadband adoption are less likely to sign up for the program. “If leaders want to connect the unconnected, in addition to low-income groups, other programs will be needed. EBB does not target these low adoption communities,” said Will Rinehartsenior researcher at the Center for Growth an Opportunity.
FCC President Jessica Rosenworcel agreed on the need to focus on raising awareness. “There was no funding to help many of these nonprofits and grassroots organizations across the country spread the word [about the program]”, Rosenworcel said at a September event hosted by the Internet Innovation Alliance on the broadband accessibility divide. “And I know it would get the word out faster if we had that opportunity.”
Digital Equity and Inclusion
The past year has been significant for its focus on digital equity and inclusion. The closure of many public institutions due to the pandemic has forced low-income communities into isolation without enough devices or technology to stay connected, digital inclusion experts say.
Organizations such as the National Digital Inclusion Association have denounced a type of discrimination known as “digital redlining” in which Internet service providers discriminate in the deployment, maintenance, upgrade or delivery of services to large band in low-income neighborhoods. Since communities of color are more likely to have slower and less reliable internet service, policymakers have actively sought solutions.
To combat this alleged practice, Representative Yvette Clark introduced the Anti-Digital Redlining Act on July 30. The bill finds that low-income residents pay the same price for DSL Internet as fiber customers, while wealthier residents receive much better Internet service. The text of the bill also recognizes that disparities in internet access “impose significant costs” on the government to choose between “either offering non-digital means of interaction or excluding residents without access to reliable broadband access. “.
If passed as federal law, the measure would require the FCC to ban digital redlining.
This year also saw the passage of legislation focusing on digital inclusion under the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The act allocated $2.75 billion to the Digital Equity Act, which establishes federal definitions of digital inclusion and digital equity.
The two programs and three Digital Equity Act grant funds will provide money to states to do digital equity work. For example, the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment program provides block grants to states for the deployment of broadband infrastructure and other digital inclusion activities.
Amy Huffman, director of policy at the National Digital Inclusion Association, said states are best prepared to promote digital equity for their residents. “States are already in charge of economic development, workforce development, health outcomes, etc., so they want the state to think holistically, about how they are doing. out on digital equity, it will help them achieve their other goals.” By connecting all residents to quality devices and internet services, residents are better equipped to fully engage in the community and improve their quality of life.
Satellite broadband takes off
Besides the high-profile space launches this year, the broadband industry is both enthusiastic and skeptical about the increased role of satellites.
At the end of 2020, the FCC voted in favor of adopting rules making it easier for satellite providers to obtain licenses to deploy satellites more quickly. In February, Elon MuskSpaceX launched 120 Starlink broadband satellites on two missions in February, bringing the total number of satellites to more than 1,700.
Low-Earth-orbit satellites, which can bring broadband to rural communities, could connect harder-to-reach communities faster than laying fiber. In May 2021, SpaceX announced that it had over 500,000 orders for Starlink service.
Other companies are also getting into the satellite business: the FCC approved Boeing’s request to launch 132 satellites for its high-speed internet network, and Amazon’s satellite knockoff, Project Kuiper, has partnered with Verizon in October to launch Internet service for underserved and unserved communities.
However, these massive investments have not come without controversy. In addition to concerns about Starlink’s ability to provide long-term, high-quality IIJA-compliant service, telecommunications public policy officials say the 12 GigaHertz (GHz) band, the portion of spectrum Starlink uses to its services, should be shared with 5G operators. providing internet to low-income communities.
A study commissioned by RS Access in August concluded that midband spectrum can be shared between 5G and satellite broadband operators and that 12 GHz spectrum is “very favorable for 5G” and “can rapidly accelerate deployment. of 5G nationwide”.
Next year, regulators and policymakers will continue the battle to determine who, if anyone, will have greater control over the 12 GHz band.
Will the “homework gap” persist in a world of online education?
Last year’s initial COVID lockdown left many families unprepared and unconnected to devices or internet access and the ‘homework gap’ persisted.
In fall 2021, many schools have adopted an in-person “hybrid” virtual teaching model. At that time, Pew research found that low-income parents were more likely to say their children were doing homework on a cell phone and couldn’t finish their homework because they didn’t have access to a computer at home. the House.
Some students used public Wi-Fi because they couldn’t reliably connect at home. The FCC’s emergency connectivity fund has been authorized to help bring devices closer to students who lack them.
Originally launched in June as part of the March American Rescue Plan Act, the FCC committed $3.8 billion of the $7.17 billion program to provide funding to schools and libraries to purchase materials for students to learn remotely.
The total amount committed to support 9,000 schools, 760 libraries and 100 consortia for nearly 8.3 million connected devices and more than 4.4 million broadband connections, the agency announced last week in a press release. hurry. (See also Year in Review: Major Digital Infrastructure Developments with Ramifications for Next Year.)
Last week, the FCC committed an additional $603 million in emergency connectivity funds to connect more than 1.4 million students in all 50 states.