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Coronavirus school closings are ‘exposing hard truths about the digital divide,’ FCC commissioner says

March 10, 2020, 10:00 AM UTC

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A school district in suburban Seattle ordered 23,500 students to stay home for two weeks on Friday, in what is likely the beginning of a broader shut down of the education system in response to the coronavirus epidemic. Meanwhile, schools outside New York City began closing Monday, as universities from Stanford in California to Princeton in New Jersey have started cancelling classes and moving them online.

One key factor informing the decisions to close schools is that online education can help replace classroom learning. Just as the corporate workforce is shifting to remote, online work, the U.S. is counting on the Internet to embark on what one expert has described as “a vast unplanned experiment in mass home-schooling.”

But there is a major obstacle standing in the way of moving to virtual schools: The country’s broadband resources. Simply put, there is not enough Internet capacity in some places, and, more critically, broadband is out of reach of many who need it.

“The coronavirus is exposing hard truths about the digital divide in this country,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel tells Fortune. “Everyone doesn’t have broadband, and that has consequences if people need to remain at home to educate themselves.”

The actual number of Americans lacking access to high speed broadband is a source of dispute. While the FCC has suggested the number is around 21 million, Rosenworcel says the actual number is much higher, because the agency uses a methodology that concludes everyone in a census block is wired, if even a single subscriber has broadband. According to Gigi Sohn, a former senior FCC staffer who is currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Georgetown Institute, the real number of Americans lacking high speed Internet is around 141 million.

In New York City, the Internet’s remote education problem is clear. According to Rosenworcel, 29% of the city’s households lack dedicated broadband access. This is a troubling prospect, if New York’s more than one million students must suddenly take online classes, many of which would presumably include a heavy video component.

And while students without broadband may be able to get by with cellular mobile devices, Rosenworcel notes some families face data caps on their monthly phone plans.

Sohn, meanwhile, worries about ISPs that serve areas outside the suburbs. “Connectivity in a lot of those places is really slow,” she says, “where there is connectivity.”

Could a Hurricane Katrina solution fix coronavirus’s Internet problem?

Last week, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), whose home state of Washington is the epicenter of the virus in the U.S., sent a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, asking to invoke a section of the 1934 Communications Act to facilitate at-home connectivity for school children. Pai and the FCC have yet to provide a formal response to Cantwell’s inquiry, but Rosenworcel says she is pressing her fellow commissioners and the country’s ISPs to convene, in order to prepare a coordinated response to the virus crisis.

History provides precedents that could inform the FCC’s decision making. These include World War II, when the federal government created a ration book system to allocate scarce items like meat, sugar, and cooking oil. This wartime example raises the question of whether the government could take special measures—in the event the coronavirus closes schools in many parts of the country—to provide broadband to children forced to learn from home.

Rosenworcel argues such measures are warranted, and could be put in place to help people access broadband during the coronavirus outbreak.

One specific measure the FCC could undertake, she says, is to work on expanding programs, already in place in some school districts, where schools and libraries provide mobile hotspots to low income children—some of whom rely on McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants to do their online homework.

Another precedent is the federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which saw the FCC expand the agency’s Lifeline program to ensure victims displaced by the disaster had access to cell phone service.

When Fortune reached out to the biggest U.S. ISPs for comment, Windstream, which services primarily rural areas across 18 states, pointed to Lifeline as a means to subsidize phone and Internet use for low income households.

Lifeline, however, has been a recent target of conservatives in Washington, D.C., who argue the program has been a source of fraud and waste—meaning any efforts to expand it would be politically fraught.

Yet another solution could come in the form of a bill proposed by Sen. Chris Val Hollen (D-Md.). The proposed law would use the proceeds from certain spectrum auctions to fund a trust that would ensure all school-age children have access to home Internet.

“These are big picture ideas that we should have put in place a long time ago,” Rosenworcel says.

In the meantime, Sohn urges ISPs to act on their own to help Americans during the coronavirus outbreak.

“ISPs love to boast about how they help communities, veterans, differently-abled Americans, and so on,” Sohn says, suggesting the companies could provide free or very low cost service to low-income households, if even on a temporary basis. “Here’s an opportunity for them to step up during a national crisis and make sure that everyone in their service area has adequate connectivity.”

To that end, Comcast points to its Internet Essentials program, which provides broadband for $10 per month to those who qualify. (Typically, people who qualify for federal assistance programs are eligible for the low-cost service.) A spokesperson for Cox, which offers a low-income program of its own, tells Fortune it is in “active discussions about how we can help school systems with a large population of students who need to learn from home.”

But if the technology isn’t widely available, Rosenworcel says, the crisis will only deepen. Lacking proper Internet connectivity is no different than having respirator masks, hand sanitizer, or testing kits at the ready.

“We have a reckoning coming about our readiness to respond,” Rosenworcel says, “and a complacency that tech will solve it.”

Update: This story originally misattributed a Cox spokesperson as pointing to Lifeline as an option for low-income Internet users. The story has been updated to note that Cox offers a low-cost Internet service of its own.

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