Can broadband keep up with demand during the pandemic?

Maria Cantwell, Roger Wicker
FILE — Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee ranking member Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., asks a question during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The coronavirus pandemic has led to unprecedented demand for broadband internet service, and a Senate hearing Wednesday focused on what the tech industry is doing to keep up with telework and students doing distance learning.

The hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee also took up the issue of efforts to bridge the digital divide and the millions of families who don’t have access to high-speed internet connections.

“We are in the middle of a crisis where people who are disconnected from school, work, health care, friends and family need access urgently,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the ranking Democrat on the panel.

The committee’s chairman, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said one estimate indicates that average broadband use has surged by 47% since the pandemic began.


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Though a growing number of Americans have access to broadband, Wicker noted much more needs to be done. He said the current crisis “has made these efforts all the more urgent.”

Cantwell said that a report by the Federal Communications Commission found that at least 18 million Americans don’t have access to broadband.

Industry representatives who testified before the committee said companies have stepped up in a variety of ways to help people during the pandemic. They noted additional hot spots have been set up in many communities, and that billing relief has been offered to those who face economic challenges after job loss.

They also pointed out that the industry, especially smaller providers, faces its own financial challenges because people can’t pay their bills.

Also, providers have faced issues in obtaining enough personal protective equipment so that workers can expand service, respond to calls and carry out maintenance in the field.

“It is imperative to keep these professionals safe and healthy, to maintain connectivity for all,” said Steven Barry, president and CEO of the Competitive Carriers Association. “And they must have reliable access to PPE.”

Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA — The Rural Broadband Association, said getting protective equipment for workers “continues to be a struggle.”

Bloomfield added that there is continuing confusion over whether cooperatives can qualify for the Paycheck Protection Program, which has distributed hundreds of billions of dollars to small businesses.

She urged lawmakers to help the industry help its customers.

“In the near term, we need both to make sure that those who are not currently connected, get connected,” Bloomfield said. “And also to make sure that those who are connected can stay connected.”

Several bills have been proposed in Congress that seek to do more to make sure people have broadband access.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., recently announced legislation that would require the FCC to study how the pandemic has affected use of the internet for telework and distance learning. It would also require the FCC to carry out an assessment of the agency’s goals in getting broadband to more Americans.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., has proposed legislation designed to reduce the “homework gap” and improve broadband access for families.

Van Hollen held a digital roundtable last month with key educators from across Maryland, who said the pandemic has highlighted the challenges they face in getting students internet access so they can work from home.

As for the tech challenges ahead, industry officials told lawmakers Wednesday that the current situation has clearly shown that people are using broadband differently than they did in the past.

Bloomfield said there is much more uploading of content than there used to be, as workers and students respond to the needs of the workplace and classroom.

She also noted that the Senate hearing itself, with lawmakers and a witness testifying remotely, was an example of where the country seems to be heading. She said there has been an “explosion” of two-way communication over the internet.

“We are seeing people needing to upload as quickly they’re needing to download,” Bloomfield said, referring to a variety of web tools, including WebEx meetings and Zoom conferences.

“In the past, people were very happy just downloading and responding (to) email,” she added.

But, with people using broadband increasingly for two-way communication, Bloomfield said it will be very important for providers to make sure they have “robust” networks to keep up with demand.

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