FCC's Starks Urges Internet Access Equality Amid Pandemic

By Khorri Atkinson
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Law360 (November 20, 2020, 9:45 PM EST) -- Democratic Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks is pressing his colleagues to do more to expand broadband access to minority and other marginalized communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, emphasizing that the public health crisis' disproportionate impact on those groups has also highlighted significant service gaps.

During a virtual media and telecommunications symposium Thursday hosted by civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow PUSH Coalition and the Citizenship Education Fund, Starks asserted that the digital divide has morphed into a "monstrous COVID-19 divide" and that the government must use this moment to make access to affordable, reliable broadband a top priority.

"Many of the advocates present here today have been discussing the effects of the digital divide for decades, so I know you all can relate to both the exasperation and the frustration I felt when this global pandemic finally laid bare that access to broadband, the devices needed to have a full online experience and the skills needed to safely navigate the internet are essential to our daily lives," Starks said.

"And it also took this moment for us to more properly expand the narrative about who remains on the wrong side of the digital divide," the commissioner added. "It's not just those in rural areas who lack access to broadband. In fact, three times as many households in urban areas remain unconnected as in rural areas. What's more is that a disproportionate number of people of color do not have a home broadband connection compared to their counterparts."

Starks further emphasized that investing in broadband to provide affordable, reliable services like telehealth would help lessen the health disparities across most marginalized communities. And as Americans are increasingly relying on the internet to stay in touch with their loved ones due to social distancing protocols to contain the virus, broadband access helps people maintain their mental health, he said.

"This is incredibly important to our seniors who are most at risk of falling victim to this virus. This period of time can be extremely isolating for this age group whether they are quarantining in their homes or assisted living facilities," the commissioner asserted. "Our seniors are the most disconnected because, for many of them, they believe, 'I've been here for 85 years, and I never needed the internet.'"

Starks' plea runs parallel to those of advocacy groups Common Cause, Public Knowledge and Next Century Cities who urged the FCC in September to consider the impact of the pandemic when assessing whether broadband is being expanded to all Americans in a timely manner.

The groups' comments were filed as part of the FCC's so-called Section 706 Report, which annually updates Congress on whether internet service is being effectively extended to all Americans. The FCC reports are based on carrier-submitted data collected via Form 477, which has produced notoriously inaccurate results.

According to the groups, the commission can't reasonably conclude that the U.S. enjoys adequate internet access given the significant shortfalls and inequities in access to broadband the pandemic has called attention.

Also in September, Mike Doyle, D-Pa., the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's telecom subcommittee, asserted a similar view and criticized the FCC's limited efforts to help consumers weather the coronavirus pandemic. He argued that the agency should do more to aid cash-strapped internet customers and students who lack broadband.

--Editing by Gemma Horowitz.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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