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Corona Pandemic Exposes the Holes in our Freedom to Connect and the Digital Divide.

bruce kushnick
Mar 24 · 9 min read

The Rise of the Drive-in, Online, Rural Education Wi-Fi Kludge

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We will return to this Coronavirus-driven scenario in a moment.

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The SHLB Coalition’s mission is to “promote open, affordable, high-capacity broadband Internet connections to anchor institutions and their communities”. They write:

“The Coronavirus has changed our world almost overnight. Schools and libraries are closed, and hospitals are overburdened. Access to ubiquitous, affordable broadband is now an urgent national priority.”

As of this writing, every city, state, not to mention the federal government are all coming up with plans on how to deal with the fact that America never properly addressed a fundamental social contract: to make sure that everyone is able to get competitive high speed broadband at reasonable rates.

To be blunt, we already paid for fiber optic networks to be deployed throughout America, over and over. Instead, we are seeing what a digital kludge of massive proportions looks like. New York State, and many other states, have closed schools and libraries. But America never closed the Digital Divide so there is a large population in the rural areas, and even in the inner cities, that do not have broadband connectivity at home for their kids, much less a work-at-home solution during this crisis.

And, as of this writing, instead of coming up with a plan that is going to close the Digital Divide and use this crisis to start that process, the current plan is to shove those without broadband onto Wi-Fi in the middle of a parking lot so the kids can go online.

As we will discuss in detail, our legal challenge, IRREGULATORS vs FCC has freed the states to take actions to reclaim billions of dollars per state that can now be used to solve the Digital Divide, lower prices and bring in competition. And wireless is not the solution, especially Wi-Fi .

No one can see the future, but throwing money into Wi-Fi , so that we can now experiment with ‘drive-in’ online education vs working to fix the underlying problems that have put us in this mess — is the wrong path. The harms to communities and the residents who have been trying to solve the Digital Divide have been ignored, and we should now make it a priority.

Moreover, a close look at the hidden charges, data caps, made up fees, and other egregious practices which have long plagued America’s communications services, are now exposed. Holding the companies accountable for these acts and to not let them return, should also be a priority.

The Corona Wi-Fi Scramble: A Drive-in, Online, Band-aid Solution.

The opening series of tweets is from a family in rural upstate NY that has been at the same homestead for generations. There is supposed to be a New York State broadband program to make sure that the underserved areas were served by the cable and phone companies — but they never showed up with broadband, and the politicians and regulators never enforced or held these companies accountable.

First, they are told that the school is closing and to check the web site for updates, but they don’t have internet at home. Then they are told to drive to parking lot with the kids so that they can use the Wi-Fi connection.

Another tweeter in upstate NY lays out that her mom is a teacher and in their town, which has a high poverty rate, over 50% are not online but the school wants to implement distance learning.

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At first I thought all of this was a joke. But as I started searching to see whether this was common, the idea of shutting down schools, especially in communities without broadband currently, is turning into a tragic comedy.

Another Drive-in, Band-aid Solution Across the US.

An article in the Mesabi Daily News, titled “Virus exposes Minnesota’s broadband gap”, details that in rural areas in Minnesota the same attempt to fix decades of neglect in a few weeks is underway, which is to use Wi-Fi in the schools and libraries’ parking lots.

The article discusses that the “Range Association of Municipalities and Schools” “RAMS” has suggested that the closed schools and libraries should increase bandwidth and install Wi-Fi hotspots in parking lots and town halls.

“In a letter sent to RAMS members on March 18… offered a temporary solution that members could act on to help students connect while they’re out of the classroom, through the Northeast Service Coop in Mountain Iron, which said it was willing to increase bandwidth and install Wi-Fi hotspots in parking lots, town halls or other locations where their fiber network is in place.”

According to the Blandin Foundation, about only 50% of rural areas in Minnesota have access to basic broadband, with the state having overall coverage of only 70%.

“Minnesota remains a state of broadband haves and have-nots, with 52.88 percent of rural communities having access at the level of the state’s minimum standard, compared to 70.04 percent of statewide households meeting the state’s broadband goals. Because Blandin Foundation cares deeply about the vitality of rural communities, we care about these gaps.”

Congressional Knee-Jerk Reaction: Spend $2 billion on Wi-Fi

This is all in super-stupid-drive mode, driven by the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic. The Democrats in the House have proposed throwing $2 billion for Wi-Fi hot spots over the next year and a half.

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But the FCC and ISPs Care About Us, Really.

Over the last two weeks, the FCC has created a pledge “Keep Americans Connected” to have the telecommunications and cable companies make some accommodations since America is now home-bound.

“It’s critical that Americans stay connected throughout the Coronavirus pandemic so that they can remain in touch with loved ones, telework, engage in remote learning, participate in telehealth, and maintain the social distancing that is so important to combating the spread of the virus,” said Chairman Pai.

The Pledge:

§ “Given the Coronavirus pandemic and its impact on American society, [[Company Name]] pledges for the next 60 days to:

§ not terminate service to any residential or small business customers because of their inability to pay their bills due to the disruptions caused by the Coronavirus pandemic;

§ (2) waive any late fees that any residential or small business customers incur because of their economic circumstances related to the Coronavirus pandemic;

§ (3) open its Wi-Fi hotspots to any American who needs them.”

And, over the last week or two, America’s telecom and cable companies have made statements about really doing their part to help America get online while we are stuck at home.

PC Magazine writes:

“US Carriers, ISPs Remove Data Caps During Coronavirus Outbreak

“With people stuck at home or losing work hours due to the coronavirus outbreak, companies such as Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Comcast are removing data caps, opening up hotspots to the public, and waiving late fees.”

But, of course there is the subplot.

National Interest is reporting that Comcast maybe using the router in your home to give Wi-Fi to strangers — and not telling you about it.

“Unbeknownst to most customers, Comcast could be using your rented router to give Wi-Fi to strangers. And now, as part of the companies’ coronavirus response, even non-Comcast customers can use your router for free.

Kludge-after-Kludge is Now America’s Broadband Future.

The fact that the companies we depended on failed to provide competitive broadband services and have made America’s services some of the most expensive services in the world, seems to be falling through the cracks.

Vice details that 42 million lack access to broadband, which is double the current FCC’s estimates; moreover, one of the main reasons for no internet is that customers can’t afford it.

“America’s broadband networks aren’t ready. Thanks to limited competition, affordable broadband is just out of reach for many US residents. One recent study indicated that nearly 42 million Americans lack access to broadband of any kind, nearly double FCC estimates.

“And availability is just one part of the problem.

“Many US residents lack broadband because they simply can’t afford it. Thanks to revolving door regulators, limited competition, and relentless lobbying, US consumers pay some of the highest prices for broadband in the developed world. That’s before you factor in the hidden fees and usage surcharges that routinely drive US broadband bills even higher.”

Disingenuous Solutions?

While the companies are talking a politically correct game, they are still using basic puffery and lawyerly-talk to squeeze us.

Take Verizon’s press headline and new offering for Lifeline customers:

“Verizon helps eliminate worry for customers during time of great need.”

Verizon continues:

“New internet option for low-income households”

“To help families during this time of need, today Verizon announced plans for a discount program on Fios broadband plans for qualified new low-income customers and two months waived service charges for current Verizon customers that are part of the Lifeline discount program.”

Sounds good until you look under the covers and see the same questionable acts.

Verizon’s press release gives new pricing for low income families and new lifeline customers.

“In addition, on April 3, we’re making a new broadband discount program available to new FiOS Internet customers who qualify through the Lifeline program. Customers may select any Verizon FiOS speed in our Mix & Match plans and receive a $20 discount per month. That means new customers can get Fios Home Internet 200/200Mbps service for just $19.99/mo, with Disney+ on us for one year and the first two months of their router rental charge waived.” (Emphasis added.)

The prices and offer are disingenuous on many levels.

  • The “router” to use the service is only waived for 2 months, and then adds an additional $10.00+ a month.
  • Second, the discount is for ‘lifeline’ customers;
  • Third, while there is a discount, the price of these services will double in a year or worse, go to regular retail pricing.
  • Worse, there is no ‘total bill’ with all of the taxes, fees and surcharges listed in the release, and this can add 15%-40% extra in the first bill.

But here’s the other kicker… FiOS is not available in most low income areas.

Deployment: FiOS deployment has been almost exclusively delivered only in the Verizon states; the East Coast from Massachusetts to Virginia (excluding most of CT), and some previous Verizon owned territories. This deployment has massive holes and the maps etc. of deployment have been mostly useless.

Take New York City, which has a franchise for Verizon to cover 100% with a fiber to the home service that was supposed to be completed by July 2014. The City has taken Verizon to court over the failure to finish the work.

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And the deployments are beyond ‘spotty’. The Brooklyner writes:

“According to NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer’s analysis, 46 percent of households in Kensington, Boro Park, and along Ocean Parkway do not have access to the broadband internet. Other neighborhoods include Chinatown & the Lower East Side (50 percent without access), Hunts Point, Longwood & Melrose (48 percent), Morris Heights, Fordham South & Mount Hope (44 percent), Belmont, Crotona Park East & East Tremont (43 percent), and Jamaica, Hollis & Street Albans (43 percent).

Socioeconomic factors play into these numbers, the report says.

“Internet disparities track closely to socioeconomic factors like poverty and are most apparent in traditionally marginalized communities. 44 percent of New Yorkers in poverty lack broadband internet access, as opposed to 22 percent above the poverty line.”

This New York City data doesn’t supply the basic map of Verizon NYC coverage, and this is because in all of the areas there are big holes in deployments; some streets have it, some do not, even in areas that have been marked ‘covered’ by Verizon’s testimony.

So, does anyone think that Verizon is going to roll trucks into these areas to give Lifeline customers FiOS, a fiber optic based service?

The family featured in the opening tweets that is in upstate New York, has been trying to get their home upgraded to fiber optics or even the cable broadband services for years.

Telling them to go to the new school drive-in to use the Wi-Fi service, shows just how the FCC and states are marginalizing rural or inner city families. Moreover, the FCC and states never audited the financials of these companies to see that the reason there is a Digital Divide is that the companies moved billions to upgrade their wireless and other services at the expense of these families and communities.

WE NEED: “National Broadband Plan: Follow the Money; Take Back the State Public Utility Telecommunications Networks.”

We will be addressing this in the upcoming articles.

bruce kushnick

Written by

New Networks Institute,Executive Director, & Founding Member, IRREGULATORS; Telecom analyst for 38 years, and I have been playing the piano for 63 years.

bruce kushnick

Written by

New Networks Institute,Executive Director, & Founding Member, IRREGULATORS; Telecom analyst for 38 years, and I have been playing the piano for 63 years.

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