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Bogus maps and broken bureaucracies can have real world harm.
Instead, members of the family, the Derrys, drive to a country market a couple miles away, sit in their car and hop on the store’s internet hot spot for Zoom classes and to send work emails.
Cecilia explained to me why tens of millions of Americans in rural areas aren’t getting fast internet at home, and how the pandemic has made politicians agree on the problems of the online access gap — but not on solutions.
Shira: Why can’t the Derry family access internet service at home?
Cecilia: If your census area has one home with fast internet service, the government logs everyone else as having access, too, even if they don’t. The Derrys only are able to buy internet service that’s a throwback to the early 2000s, but one of their neighbors has the option of fast internet service.
Whose fault is this?
The internet providers are overreporting where their service reaches, and the Federal Communications Commission has allowed them to get away with it for years.
Poor management of the Universal Service Fund, which subsidizes phone and internet access in rural areas, also has meant some companies get the money without delivering on the promised numbers of households served or service quality.
OK, play policy maker: What would fix this problem?
More accountability in the U.S.F. program is a good first step, and arguably it needs more funding.
There’s a debate in Congress over whether coronavirus-related stimulus programs are an opportunity to solve rural internet gaps. With schools closed and more people working from home, Democrats and Republicans both generally agree now with the principle of getting fast internet to every American. They disagree on how.
What are their differences?
It’s the classic big government versus small government debate. Democrats say more government funding to bring internet service to people like the Derry family can create the kind of jobs the economy will need. Republicans are backing a new mobile internet technology to replace home internet lines and solve access gaps.
The telecommunications companies will not serve the Derry family out of the goodness of their heart. There needs to be a financial incentive.
I think the stories of students being left behind because they can’t connect to virtual classes will be heartbreaking and propel the internet companies and Washington to act. Here’s hoping …
We want to hear from our readers who don’t have fast and reliable internet at home. How has this affected you? How do you and your family manage? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org; please include your full name and location. We may publish a selection of responses.
Buyer (or web surfer) beware
We have to be suspicious about the motivations behind everything we see online.
That was the extremely discouraging message from the Times tech reporter Davey Alba, who writes about the nasty corners of the internet.
His supporters shared videos or posts that they said supported the president’s remarks, and hucksters also seized on his comments to promote their unproven or dangerous “cures.”
This is a now familiar pattern. Information is almost never neutral.
People share online the ideas that conform to their political views, and people who have something to sell use tantalizing information as a business opportunity. The big internet companies like YouTube and Facebook have a tough time making and enforcing rules about what posts or videos are harmful.
It’s a mess. And there’s no way to fix it other than becoming more aware of the mess.
“We all have a responsibility to be vigilant about all the forces at work,” Davey told me.
“That means being aware of opportunists, for-profit companies that want to protect their bottom lines and look politically neutral, and hyperpartisan followers and conspiracy theorists.”
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