Opinion: Want to Keep America Home? Give Everyone Free Basic Broadband

With online tools filling the void left by social distancing, rural America’s lack of affordable broadband is more obvious than ever. Policy analyst Harold Feld says the best way to address the nation’s health emergency is to provide a basic level of service to everyone, everywhere.

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Medical experts agree that the most important thing we can do to support the efforts against the COVID-19 outbreak is a medical protocol known by the acronym STHH, or “Stay the Heck Home.” To keep Americans home, we need everyone to have broadband. It’s really that simple. Without telework, the economy would shut down completely. We would lose half a school year without distance education. But the value of everyone having a residential broadband connection goes well beyond that in the current crisis. Want to keep people off the streets to flatten the curve? Make it possible for them to shop online? Want them to access forms to receive government aid during this economic crisis? Cut down on physical doctor appointments to avoid infecting others? Fill out the 2020 Census so we don’t need armies of Census Takers going door-to-door? That all takes broadband.

But most importantly, human beings are social creatures. If you want to make it as easy as possible for human beings to stay in their homes, you need to make it possible for them to visit each other virtually. Always make it as easy as possible for people to do what you want them to do, and the STHH protocol requires lots and lots of people to do something entirely unnatural to human beings — stay socially isolated for an indefinite period of time that may last months. Virtual visits may not be as good as the real thing, but a video call with parents or grandchildren can do a great deal to relieve stress when you are stuck inside.

Unfortunately, as most folks know, the U.S. has some of the most expensive broadband in the developed world. Even with broadband providers signing the “Keep Americans Connected Pledge” to not disconnect anyone or charge late fees for the next 60 days, we will still see millions of unemployed Americans potentially accumulating significant past-due bills for a connection they desperately need in order to avoid getting sick. Nor does this help the millions of Americans already offline because they can’t afford a connection. Finally, the uncomfortable elephant in the room is that this may last much longer than the 60 days covered by the pledge. Even if we expect internet service providers to keep this promise during the entire pandemic, these are also businesses with employees. We want to support them during this economic crisis so they can pay their own employees.

So here is a very simple idea to persuade Americans to stay home, keep our virtual society running, and stimulate the economy. As part of the coronavirus stimulus package, the United States government will cover everyone’s broadband bill for a basic connection capable of supporting two-way video (ideally 25/25 Mbps, but we may have to settle for the Federal Communications Commission official definition of broadband of 25/3 Mbps).

How This Would Work

In the next stimulus bill, we include a provision that requires all ISPs to provide a broadband connection that either meets this definition or is as fast as technically feasible to anyone who asks for it. (No credit checks, no requirement to pay any past debt due, or anything else that ordinarily prevents people from getting a broadband subscription.) This only applies to wireline or fixed-wireless connections, not mobile (wireless) internet. We want people to STHH, remember? We also require (not merely ask) all wireline/fixed-wireless connections to lift all bandwidth caps and fees, and to make this “basic broadband” connection available on an unbundled basis. (We are not subsidizing cable.) If you have a connection that is worse than our definition, you get upgraded to the basic broadband connection, or best technically feasible speed, for the duration of this pandemic. If you don’t have a connection, the broadband provider must hook you up.

In return, the ISP gets to bill the government a set amount per subscriber. Let’s be generous and say $50/month per subscriber, plus a $25 hook-up fee for new customers. The broadband provider submits an invoice to the government. The federal government pays the broadband provider. For customers with faster speeds/more expensive accounts, the $50 is credited to their bill. If customers want to, they can drop down to the $50/month basic broadband with no termination fees. (Remember, people are going to get laid off and may incur medical expenses and debt; they may need to reduce expenses to pay grocery bills and rent first.)

One month after the crisis ends, everyone reverts back to their previous contract with their broadband provider. In the case of new hook-ups, they can either get a new subscription or be terminated without any fee.

This won’t help the people who don’t have access to broadband at all. The stimulus package should also include funds to expand deployment to people who have no access. But this provides a financial stimulus to both the ISPs and directly to consumers. In terms of stimulating the economy, that’s double the bang for the buck for a desperately needed service.

Why Offer This to Everyone? Why Not “Needs Test”? 

When passing an emergency stimulus bill, you want to make things quick and easy to administer. You don’t want to come up with some complicated needs-testing that ends up costing more money than it saves and invariably screens out people who actually need the help. Besides, lots of people who objectively were doing fine last month are now getting zero income and need help as much as anyone else does. Means-testing is usually based on how much money you made in the past, not what you need now.

Universal benefits also tend to be more politically stable than narrowly targeted relief, which can become stigmatized, creating a constant search to separate the “deserving” from the “undeserving” recipients. Finally, the way to “claw back” benefits paid to people who might not need them is through a progressive tax system, not through setting up a bunch of bureaucratic hurdles and paperwork requirements before the fact. Even if there are people who can make their way through this without public help by taking on additional debt or reaching out to family and friends, we want everyone back out there spending money and ramping up the economy as soon as it’s safe to do so. This means that everyone should get the benefit.

So let’s keep this simple. Think of the extra $50 a month to the one percent as being cheaper than setting up some massive system designed to make sure no one cheats us out of a dollar. This gets relief to the people who need it now and the people who will need it who are doing okay today and may be completely without a paycheck tomorrow.

This also has the advantage of directly supporting U.S. businesses and jobs. We don’t have to worry about whether people are going to spend the money to stimulate the economy. Paying ISPs to give everyone basic broadband will go straight to companies not as a bailout, but in exchange for real services rendered to people who really need them.

It Really Is This Simple

Sometimes, problems really do have simple solutions. We need to connect as many people as possible to broadband to keep society running and to keep people safely at home. Don’t overthink it. Just give people free broadband. Pay the broadband provider, the ISP provides service, America is connected, Americans therefore stay home. It won’t make all the COVID-19 problems go away, but it will help with the most important thing: keeping people home to avoid spreading a disease.

 

Harold Feld is senior vice president of Public Knowledge, a nonprofit policy organization focused on free expression and open communications. This article is republished from the Public Knowledge blog.

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