A lesson from the pandemic: Every American household needs and deserves reliable internet service

For too many American families, though, broadband remains a luxury.

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The solution to broadband dead zones, writes Sen. Dick Durbin, is to make the investments to bring high-quality broadband to every zip code in America.

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Broadband is a necessity. For too many American families, though, it remains a luxury.

The past year has fundamentally altered how we do our jobs, socialize with friends and family, go to school and buy goods and services. With businesses and schools shut down for months, those fortunate enough to be able to work from home took meetings, conducted business and “went to class” behind a screen. Many still are.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the realities of the digital divide and highlighted the need for substantial broadband investment. 

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I heard from Mark Norris, an Iraq war veteran, and high school teacher in Shawnee, Illinois. When the pandemic hit, Mark immediately thought about his students, what this would mean for their achievement, and how he was going to be able to make it through all of the course material. A year later, he still worries about the academic setbacks for his students. He told me the internet service he had during his deployment was more reliable than the service he and his students have today. 

Over the past year, most of us have had to face broadband connectivity issues head-on. And despite what you might think, broadband dead zones are not limited to communities in the most rural parts of Illinois. A report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that one in three Chicago households either did not have access to a high-speed connection or reported serious problems with their connection.

The digital divide presents an obvious problem, but there is an obvious solution: Making the necessary investments to bring high-quality broadband to every zip code in America. 

Investing in broadband will jump-start economic growth by creating good-paying jobs, ensure our children are not falling behind in their coursework, empower small businesses, improve life on our farms, and protect our most vulnerable seniors by expanding access to telehealth. This isn’t an easy undertaking, but we can’t be afraid to make a big, bold investment.

President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan calls for that big and bold investment in the form of $100 billion over eight years dedicated to building out our broadband infrastructure and bringing quality broadband service to all.

Additionally, the American Rescue Plan Act included $7.1 billion for the Federal Communication Commission’s E-rate program, which will help get and keep students, libraries, and teachers like Mark in Shawnee connected. 

But we cannot stop there. On top of the investments in the American Jobs Plan, we should improve the way we determine whether a given area has access to service.

In the FCC’s view, if one household within a single Census block has access to fixed broadband, the entire area is considered to be served. This does not give us a clear picture of where the broadband gaps are and how reliable the speeds are. Microsoft found that as many as 157 million Americans are not using the internet at broadband speeds as defined by the FCC. That is nearly half of the United States.

In 2019, I led the Illinois delegation — Republicans and Democrats — in urging the previous FCC chair to address this issue. Since that time, Congress has made strides to fix this problem by passing the bipartisan Broadband DATA Act, which instructed the FCC to take steps to fix these flawed federal maps. In December, we provided $65 million in federal funding to help the commission carry out this task. 

Making our federal broadband maps more accurate is a simple, yet important step toward universal service and closing the digital divide.

We should also look at the Computer and Internet Access Equity Act, legislation I’ve introduced with Rep. Danny Davis, D-Illinois, and the Promoting Access to Broadband Act, a bill I’ve introduced with Rep. Sean Maloney, D-New York, that would increase broadband access to underserved communities by expanding underutilized federal programs already in place.

It has been said that the COVID-19 pandemic will not break us, but show us where we are already broken. Right now, broadband access for all is certainly broken. With determination and the right federal investments, we can bridge the digital divide and give every American household this basic necessity. 

Dick Durbin, a Democrat, is the senior senator from Illinois, first elected in 1996.

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