Americans who are home-bound have turned to the internet in ways never seen before.
Millions of us are working from kitchen and dining room tables. Millions more who are under stay-at-home orders are passing the time by going online — watching movies, playing games, social media, etc.
All of this is taking its toll. The New York Times reported this week that "the average time it took to download videos, emails and documents increased as broadband speeds declined 4.9 percent from the previous week." The newspaper cited Ookla, a broadband speed testing service.
Broadband companies have taken steps to deal with this extraordinary moment, but it's pretty clear the internet is being tested.
It’s not just slower speeds that have our attention, but the school closings that pushed instruction online have alerted us to the gaps in connectivity — between rural and urban Americans and rich and poor ones.
At least 21 million Americans lack broadband access (defined by the Federal Communication Commission as download speeds of 25 megabits per second and upload speeds of 3 megabits per second.)
The topline numbers in Iowa and Illinois don't look too bad. In Iowa, 90% have access, as do about 95% of Illinoisans. But these figures obscure yawning gaps in coverage. According to a Pew Research Center survey, more than 4 out of 10 Americans who make less than $30,000 a year don’t have access to high speed internet. Last year, it said that, according to FCC data, 30% of rural Americans lacked access.
We know that students won’t have to learn from home forever. At some point, the coronavirus threat will have subsided and students will be back in the classroom. Millions of Americans also will abandon their home offices (such as they are) and return to their regular workplaces.
But when we do, we ought to remember this moment.
Just as the coronavirus has awakened us to the fragility of our health care system, we also ought to realize that the internet, which many of us have taken for granted, is a central part of our lives and must be strengthened for the future — and for all of us.
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