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Growing the Internet

Could the CARES Act Close the Digital Divide in the United States?

Last week, the U.S. Congress passed the third stimulus bill in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This bill primarily focused on economic relief for companies, individuals, cities, states, and tribal communities. It allocates over $2 trillion in funds for a variety of measures intended to ease the burden of COVID-19.

Some of the included measures have been in the news for weeks, including those related to individual checks for those financially impacted by the virus. But there is an element to this bill that is equally important, not only for our ability to cope with the virus now but also to permanently change our country for the better.

These emergency funds allocate $150 billion to states and territories, including $8 billion specifically for Tribal governments, for “coronavirus relief.” What that relief looks like, however, is relatively vague. If a community was financially impacted by the pandemic between March and December of this year, in a way that they did not originally anticipate in their budgets, this fund covers most of those expenses.

And what is one of the biggest impacts we’ve seen? Millions of people have been forced to isolate themselves at home and carry out their daily lives as best as possible.

Employees are working from home in record numbers. Students are being forced to leave their schools or dorms to finish the semester using only distance learning. Telemedicine requests are through the roof as hospitals and clinics try to help as many patients as possible without exposing them, or their facilities, to the virus.

If it wasn’t clear before the pandemic struck, it should be now – the Internet is essential to daily life and without it, individuals cannot participate in modern society.

This has put unprecedent (but not unmanageable) pressure on existing networks to increase their capacity and capabilities. The urgent need to deploy in un- or under-served areas can be felt everywhere, and both large and small providers alike are doing their best to connect as many people as possible. But for those without access, especially in areas where the necessary infrastructure doesn’t exist, the CARE Act provides an opportunity to take a big step towards the digital divide for good.

Communities have been building their own networks to suit their needs for decades. Examples can be found in cities as large as NYC and as remote as the Havasupai Nation at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. There are hundreds of examples across the United States, experts dedicated to supporting these deployments and trainings to teach community members how to do it themselves.

The Covid-19 response bills are a once in a lifetime (I hope!) opportunity to truly close the digital divide once and for all. It is critical that local and state government officials take this chance to deploy networks as quickly as they can to get their communities online, not only so that they can carry out their normal lives as much as possible, but also so that they can participate in the thousands of new resources that will exist after lockdowns have been lifted.

Of all the many priorities communities are balancing today, Internet connectivity must be at the top of the list.

Access to the Internet has never been more important. Learn about the work of communities around the world to keep the Internet open and globally connected.


Image by Sharon McCutcheon via Unsplash