Commentary: Crisis shows need for open internet, universal broadband

By Sen. Nicole Poore

Delawareans have had their lives turned upside down by COVID-19. Every day, I talk to dozens of constituents coping with lost or furloughed jobs, shuttered businesses, mounting bills and uncertainty about health care and education for their children.

Our state and our nation are learning just how vulnerable we are to unexpected disasters and how we must better plan for them in the future. That includes carefully weighing protections for those living from paycheck to paycheck, those without basic health insurance, the elderly, and people living with disabilities and their families.

Nicole Poore

There also is more that needs to be done to provide greater access to a critical service we’ve come to rely on more than ever before: broadband internet.

During this crisis, Delawareans have been logging on to telecommute to work, attend a virtual classroom lesson, see a doctor and connect with friends and family. Just last month, my colleagues and I in the Delaware General Assembly even met virtually for the first time in history.

Yet, far too many Delawareans still do not have access to this vital resource. That is why I am calling on Congress to include universal broadband in the next stimulus package.

Like rural electrification and universal telephone service a century ago, universal broadband must become a priority here in Delaware and nationwide. From providing all young people – including children with special needs – with an uninterrupted education to making telemedicine available to all, we need a renewed national commitment to universal broadband connectivity.

One year ago, Gov. John Carney announced a partnership to provide broadband access to rural areas in Kent and Sussex counties. New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer and Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki also recognized the urgent need for Wi-Fi during the pandemic by launching complimentary internet hot spots.

With schools and basic medical care shifting to remote learning and telemedicine, the need for universal connectivity has become even more urgent. The education divide – especially among low-income students, students of color and those with disabilities – is widening because of the digital divide.

Solving the digital divide demands that we address several issues simultaneously, including broadband connectivity, assistance with monthly service payments, access to computers and digital literacy.

We need an all-hands-on-deck approach to address these challenges. Nationally, we know that 95 percent of Americans have access to high-speed broadband at home, but only 73 percent subscribe. For African Americans and Hispanics, the numbers are 66 percent and 61 percent, respectively.

Nearly half of students of color also do not have a computer at home. Seventy percent of teachers report not being ready for distance learning. And significant numbers of grade schoolers do not have sufficient digital training.

Internet providers are stepping up during this crisis by offering discounted broadband to low-income communities. But we must do more to improve access for all Delawareans well beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

To solve these problems, we need to train students and teachers, get computers into every household and better plan the digital transitions in education, health care and the workforce.

We also need to make sure every community is wired with broadband. About 6% of all Americans – including 15 million in rural areas like Sussex County – don’t have broadband networks wired into their communities. While Gov. Carney has done great work in addressing this barrier, targeted federal legislation should be directed to communities that do not have networks, and federal contracts should only be awarded through competitive bidding with the best vendors and technologies.

I’m proud of our school districts and charter schools for answering the challenge by providing remote learning opportunities. I’m thrilled ChristianaCare received a grant from the Federal Communications Commission for telehealth services during the pandemic.

But to use these services, vulnerable families need to be able to connect to high-speed internet.

To ensure they can, elected officials at all levels must address all aspects of the challenge. We need to promote affordable internet access and computers for all families, most especially those who cannot afford it. And universal digital literacy must be a national goal.

The cost of inaction has risen drastically over the past 11 weeks. Our resolve to meet this challenge must rise with it.

Nicole Poore is the majority leader in the Delaware State Senate, representing the 12th District in New Castle County. She is vice chair of the Senate Health & Social Services Committee.