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Why Helping Families Access the Internet Is So Challenging

Internet access remains out of reach for millions of homes across America, but federal officials don't agree on the scale of the problem, and local regulations may impede rapid broadband adoption.

The Federal Communications Commission currently estimates that more than 94 percent of Americans have high-speed Internet access, but those numbers are likely inflated, member Jessica Rosenworcel told the Wall Street Journal this week. Companies that offer Internet access to a single home within a given geographic region are required to report that they offer access to that entire region.

Rosenworcel is pushing for the commission to locate more accurate figures.

In the meantime, she wants the agency to halt plans to give $16 billion to internet companies this fall. Those funds are designed to help improve rural internet service, but Rosenworcel worries that they'll be misplaced without a fully formed picture of the country's internet access landscape.

FCC chair Ajit Pai, on the other hand, believes continuing to give the companies the money is the best approach to start addressing access gaps. "Do we help them now, or do we delay relief until we can determine who else needs help, too? To me, rural America has waited long enough," he said in a statement to the Journal.

Meanwhile, schools and local governments in several states are unable to provide internet access to families due to burdensome regulations that can be traced back to broadband companies' lobbying efforts, the Washington Post reported Tuesday

In Virginia, local governments can't charge lower rates for internet service than broadband companies serving the area. Other regulations require that municipalities demonstrate that they'll be able to generate profit from offering internet service, and prohibit governments from subsidizing internet service user fees.

The Post points to a 2020 Broadband Now study showing that states with fewer legislative obstacles to government-provided internet service tend to have more widespread internet availability and lower prices for customers.

An EdWeek Research Center survey this spring revealed that districts with a high percentage of low-income students are significantly more likely to have students without home internet access. With restrictions on directly offering internet services, local governments and schools have turned to stopgap measures like purchasing WiFi hotspots, offering buses and school parking lots as depots for students and teachers to access the internet, and distributing hard-copy packets and other non-digital instruction to students who need it.

Some advocates have called for schools to pay for teachers' at-home internet access during the COVID-19 pandemic. But many school budgets are already stretched thin, and likely to face further cuts during the ongoing economic downturn. Education technology groups are calling for $5 billion from Congress to address internet access gaps, and 39 states attorney general earlier this month urged Congress to help expand access nationwide.

Thus far, House Democrats have passed a bill that would provide $24 million (see page 39) to the FCC for expanding internet access. The Republican-led Senate is unlikely to take up that version of the bill.


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