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USA TODAY

Tens of millions of Americans lack broadband access. During normal times, that’s a problem. In a pandemic, it’s a crisis: Our view

During the Great Depression, people waited in bread lines for sustenance. In today’s economic crisis, the internet is often the pathway for relief.

Online is where people try to keep or find work. How they see their doctor or apply for jobless benefits. How they order food and supplies. Where they find solace through faith, or laughter through entertainment. For many, it’s the way they connect to friends and family, and stay abreast of the news. 

For millions of children and university students, high-speed internet is their only means of continuing an education in a time of remote learning.

Except tens of million of people in America are effectively denied a place in this modern-day bread line because they can’t afford, or don’t have access to, high-speed internet. Most are in rural areas. And the problem is particularly egregious within the nation’s tribal lands, where nearly a third of Native Americans lack broadband access. 

The result is that people seem to vanish, like 4,500 students of the Jefferson County Public School District for Louisville, Ky., who disappeared from distance-learning programs after the COVID-19 outbreak kept children home. The vast majority of them are poor. Some are homeless. Many lack the high-speed access necessary to “attend” online classes, or take and turn in school assignments.

OPPOSING VIEW: We don’t need to subsidize internet service

Some 7 million school-age children in the U.S. live in homes without internet during a crisis when nearly all states have ordered or urged schools to close.

America’s “digital divide” is a longstanding problem, but the coronavirus pandemic has cast it in high relief. As in any crisis, this one also offers an opportunity.

President Donald Trump wants the next coronavirus stimulus bill devoted in part to infrastructure to generate jobs and boost the economy, and Democrats are seeking $80 billion to finally link rural and impoverished regions with high-speed internet. 

Much as government helped bring electricity to rural areas in previous decades, approving that relief package would be a great way to narrow the digital divide. Still more could be done in the short term.

The Federal Communications Commission has taken limited steps to preserve public online access. The centerpiece is a Keep Americans Connected Pledge in which internet service providers have agreed, at least temporarily, to several limited steps to keep Americans connected during the pandemic. Comcast and other companies have followed through with increased internet access.  

But the FCC and its chairman, Ajit Pai, could do more. The commission could expand the Lifeline program that helps low-income Americans purchase broadband access. The $9.25-per-month subsidy is dated, and the agency could double it with unspent Lifeline budget funds. (Congress could boost it to a market-appropriate $50-per-month subsidy with an additional $8 billion in funding, allowing low-income users to access more than just mobile-device services, which are impractical for a child’s homework needs.) 

The commission could also temporarily loosen Lifeline rules to allow any of the 33 million Americans seeking unemployment and jobs to get high-speed internet access.

School districts desperate to reconnect with “lost” students are lending out iPads and setting up Wi-Fi hotspots at football fields. The FCC could help. It has more than $2 billion in its E-Rate education fund established to extend broadband for K-12 classrooms. By broadening that definition to include where the classrooms are effectively are now — in the children’s homes — the FCC could use that money as intended.

The digital divide is a miscarriage in the best of times. During a national crisis, it’s intolerable. 

USA TODAY’s editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.

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