How the United States' Massive Failure to Close the Digital Divide Got Exposed By Coronavirus
Three out of four Americans without reliable high-speed internet access live in urban areas. Most haven’t connected because they can’t afford it.
It’s a normal lockdown morning for Alexis and his 9-year-old daughter, Eva. They’re huddled in front of Alexis’ cellphone and a laptop. Father and daughter urge the two machines to forge a decent connection and deliver the internet to the laptop.
“Waiting and waiting and waiting,” Eva says.
“It’s very slow,” her father says.
The father and daughter, who asked Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting not to use their last names for privacy reasons, aren’t perched on a mountaintop or camping in a desert. They’re in Oakland, California, a half-hour’s drive from the headquarters of Google and Facebook.
All around them, there is the internet. It runs outside their street through copper and fiber-optic cables. It sweeps through the air from satellites and cellphone towers. But as they coax a feeble hotspot connection from Alexis’ cellphone and Eva slowly joins a Zoom meeting of her schoolmates, this ocean of high-speed broadband remains as out of reach as it is invisible.
Alexis was laid off from his job as an audio engineer two months ago. Even before, the $60-per-month bill for broadband internet access seemed like a luxury they couldn’t afford. Now, the family scrapes by, constantly worrying about how to pay rent and buy food, while the slow internet that was once an inconvenience has now become a major hurdle to Eva being able to participate in the third grade.
“The idea of me signing a contract when I don’t even know how I can pay rent …” he said. “Oh my God, it’s complicated.”
This is what the digital divide looks like in 2020, almost a dozen years after closing it became one of President Barack Obama’s major initiatives.
Three out of every four Americans who lack broadband access have the infrastructure in their neighborhood but haven’t connected to it. Most, like Alexis and Eva, just don’t have the money. Unlike in other wealthy nations, the federal government has imposed no cost controls to make broadband more affordable. The result: massive inequality in one of the modern world’s most basic utilities.
“The digital divide in America is largely urban,” said Gigi Sohn, a lawyer and former Federal Communications Commission staffer under Obama. “It’s largely low-income and it’s largely minority communities. Even if you account for income, people of color are disproportionately impacted negatively. They’re on the wrong side of the digital divide.”
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has handed corporations even greater control over the market while preparing to hand them billions more in public money without clear data on where broadband internet is needed and without guarantees that the infrastructure will actually be built.
A worker digs a line to lay fiber-optic cable for high-speed internet in rural Wiggins, Colo., in December 2019. CREDIT: RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images
In America’s countryside, companies with government contracts simply never laid vast swathes of the cable they were paid to install, continuing to leave rural Americans – even those who could afford the service – without it. Some of the country’s largest internet service providers – Frontier Communications and CenturyLink – took billions in government grants to improve broadband in rural areas, only to later admit that they were failing to fully deliver on their promises. They were never punished or asked to pay back the public money.
All this has been exposed by the coronavirus pandemic. As the virus has swept across the country, forcing families to work and attend school online, millions of children have been effectively locked out of their classrooms. Educators across the country have despaired, with many school districts electing not to give out grades because so many of their students simply don’t have access to an online education.
That’s all put the digital divide into even starker terms. Those with the internet got access to school this semester. Those without it either didn’t or had to go to extreme lengths just to try.
No one really knows how many people don’t have high-speed internet access. The government puts the figure at 21 million, but most studies show that’s a drastic undercount – Microsoft estimates it could be as many as half of all Americans. But there is something that most people involved agree on.
“This has been a colossal failure,” said Christopher Ali, an assistant professor in media studies at the University of Virginia, who has spent the last few years writing a book about broadband deployment in the United States. “We’re spending a lot of money. We’re just not spending it efficiently, and we’re not spending it democratically.”
In 2008, Obama made his promise to the American people as president-elect. “It is unacceptable that the United States ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption,” he said. “Here, in the country that invented the internet, every child should have the chance to get online, and they’ll get that chance when I’m president.”
Almost 12 years later, the U.S. no longer ranks 15th in broadband adoption. Now, it’s 18th, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Experts estimate the federal government has thrown more than $100 billion at the country’s digital divide, but thin accountability, reticence to regulate the industry and pitiful data management have combined to render that spending far less effective than it might have been.
The affordability problem
U.S. regulation of internet service provision has been, well, decidedly American. The government has given money to private companies to build the infrastructure in the hope they will play fair and keep prices low, with few controls in place.
That’s not how it works in many other wealthy countries. In the United Kingdom, every home and business is entitled to a broadband connection. The government will pay for new connections and mandates minimum speeds and maximum prices to ensure broadband access. In South Korea, home to some of the fastest internet connections on the planet, the government has invested in widespread public broadband networks, which residents enjoy for prices that are, on average, about half what they are in the U.S.
The U.S. approach hasn’t really worked. Fewer Americans are connected to broadband than the residents of other less-developed countries. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, residents of Greece and Portugal are more likely to have broadband connections than U.S. residents, despite those countries’ far smaller economies. And, as Alexis and other families across the country illustrate, broadband internet remains out of reach for millions of low-income families across much of the country.
The Federal Communications Commission, which governs broadband rollout in the U.S., moved toward rectifying this affordability barrier during the Obama presidency. The panel – consisting of five members appointed by the president, with at least two from the opposing party – stepped toward greater regulation of internet service provision. Crucially, the agency voted for net neutrality, which basically requires internet service providers to treat all websites equally, rather than speeding up service for sites that pay an extra fee while throttling others that can’t afford the surcharge.
This movement changed when Trump took office and appointed Ajit Pai as FCC chairman. Under Trump, the FCC quickly reversed the net neutrality decision and has proven hostile toward programs aimed at helping poor people get online.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai (from left) and Commissioners Michael O’Rielly, Brendan Carr and Jessica Rosenworcel testify before a House subcommittee in December 2019. CREDIT: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Rather than capping internet rates, the FCC has for decades run two programs to subsidize access for low-income residents. The Lifeline program offers $9.25 a month to help low-income families pay for internet services. That’s nowhere near enough to cover broadband costs, so most participants use the subsidy to buy special deals that offer a cheap mobile device with a phone, data and text package.
Since Trump took office, spending on Lifeline has dropped to almost half of what it was under Obama, from $2.2 billion in 2012 to just under $1.3 billion last year. And Sohn, the former FCC staffer, calculated that the number of participants in the program has dropped by more than 40% since Trump took office.
The FCC had an opportunity to step in and address the lack of access just as the pandemic was unfolding.
A coalition of more than 1,000 education, health care and community groups saw an impending disaster and implored the FCC to expand its E-Rate program, which was launched in 1996 to provide funding for schools and libraries to connect to phone lines and, later, to broadband. The coalition asked the FCC to use E-Rate money to buy things such as wireless hotspots that low-income families could take home to get their kids online, arguing that these devices would provide the same service the school and library internet did in normal times.
The proposal has been met with silence from the agency.
Brendan Carr, a Trump-appointed FCC commissioner, said any expansion like that would be challenged in court because E-Rate money has to be spent “in the classroom.”
“We have to administer the statute and words written by Congress,” Carr, who previously served as the FCC’s general counsel, wrote in an email.
In May, the House of Representatives passed the HEROES Act. The act, currently stalled in the Senate, requests some of what the coalition was asking for: It would allocate $5.5 billion to help close the digital divide, $1.5 billion of which would come from the E-Rate program.
“We have authority and we have funds,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, one of the two Democratic FCC commissioners. “Let’s figure out how to solve the homework gap. We could do that right now and make a meaningful difference in millions of students’ lives.”
But even if the act passes, not all students struggling to get online during this crisis need merely financial help. For millions, there’s no network to which to even connect.
The data problem
If you want to understand the country’s failure to connect rural America, a good place to start is the FCC website’s interactive Broadband Map.
There, you can plug in your home addresses to see whether high-speed internet is available on your street. When you zoom out, broadband coverage looks impressive across the country; shades of blue show how many companies – which it calls “fixed residential broadband providers” – serve every census tract. The lightest shade of sky blue represents one provider per tract; a midnight blue means a census tract is served by 12 or more companies.
Areas that don’t have broadband service are ivory, and almost none of the FCC’s map is that color. Most of the country is a sea of turquoise and light blue, meaning at least a couple of companies provide broadband to each census tract, which can be as small as a city block or as large as hundreds of square miles in some rural areas.
Virginia Tyree’s street, a few miles outside Lynchburg, Virginia, falls somewhere in the middle of the Broadband Map’s scale. Her home, according to the map, is served by five different providers.
That’s news to Tyree, who has spent the last few months packing a card table and laptop into her car and driving to daughter Mollie’s school to set up in the parking lot and use the internet.
Virginia Tyree and 10-year-old daughter Mollie go to the parking lot outside Mollie’s school near Lynchburg, Va., to use its Wi-Fi network. They go for several hours a few days a week so Mollie can attend online classes and do her homework. Courtesy of Virginia Tyree
Tyree said nobody provides fixed broadband to her home. There are a few satellite internet companies that offer service, but they have a terrible reputation, she said. Her neighbors have told her that those connections are expensive, unreliable and slow. Before the coronavirus crisis, the Tyree family relied on a wireless hotspot provided by their phone provider, Verizon. The internet, which was never good, has become abysmal because the whole family is now online all day.
“If you’re trying to watch a video, you can watch about two minutes and then it pauses. It’s basically like having dial-up back in the old days,” Tyree said. “You’re just sitting and waiting and watching, and then you watch another minute and then it stops and it’s very stuttery – my daughter likes to say ’zigging out.’ ”
There’s a simple reason for the discrepancy between the internet service the FCC claims the Tyrees can get and what they actually get: The FCC’s data isn’t even close to being accurate.
Every year, internet service providers are required to report to the FCC to which census tracts they provide internet. But a company can claim it is serving an area if only one home in that census tract is being served. And the FCC’s definition of “served” is wildly generous: A provider can claim it is serving a household if, in theory, it could provide that home with an internet connection within 10 days. The company doesn’t actually have to be doing so.
“There’s a lot about telecom policy that is bonkers,” said Sohn, the former FCC staffer.
Earlier this year, Trump signed bipartisan legislation to require internet service providers to provide much more granular information about who is getting fast internet and who isn’t.
But for the last decade, this lack of good data has plagued the government’s effort to build broadband infrastructure by limiting its ability to judge how well internet service providers that receive government grants are performing.
Consequently, 10 years later, nobody really knows how many people in America lack a broadband connection.
That’s why the estimates range from about 21 million people to more than 40 million. If you factor in families that have broadband connections, but they’re not fast or reliable, some estimates, including a study by Microsoft, say the figure is more like 160 million people – or half of the U.S. population.
The FCC simply doesn’t know how much people in different cities are paying for their internet, how fast their connections are or where companies have installed cheaper copper networks instead of faster fiber-optic cables.
While those problems remain unsolved, the federal government plans to hand out a new round of funding based on the same faulty maps.
The accountability problem
Later this year, the FCC will launch the latest incarnation of its infrastructure program. The Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will send $16 billion in grants to for-profit firms to spend on building internet networks over the next 10 years. In a second phase, the FCC will dole out another $4 billion.
Two of the companies expected to line up for these grants already have failed spectacularly to live up to their promises from the last round.
The last time the FCC handed out money to build internet infrastructure, in 2015, Frontier Communications and CenturyLink, two of the country’s largest internet service providers, collectively won grants worth $3.2 billion over the next four years – more than $800 million a year between them and more than a third of the program’s $9 billion total.
In January, CenturyLink wrote to the FCC to say it was failing to meet a deadline for deploying networks in 23 of the 33 states in which it was working. In April, having also failed to meet deadlines and facing mountains of debt, Frontier Communications declared bankruptcy.
“Neither Frontier nor CenturyLink have been reprimanded or punished by the FCC in any way, shape or form for taking billions of dollars from taxpayers and not building the networks they promised,” Sohn said.
Pai, the FCC chairman, didn’t respond to multiple emails asking whether the commission would allow Frontier or CenturyLink to get more taxpayer money later this year. The FCC did not respond to questions about the two companies.
“It’s absolutely bananas,” said Ali, the University of Virginia professor. “There’s no checks and balances.”
This story was edited by Andrew Donohue and Esther Kaplan and copy edited by Nikki Frick.
This story was originally published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at revealnews.org/podcast.