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Legislative Watch: COVID-19 and the Digital Divide

In a socially distanced world, citizens who most need online support and resources are least likely to be able to access them. Recent bills on the digital divide, including broadband, are addressing the problem.

Installation of fiber-optic broadband cable in rural Minnesota. (Bruce Bisping/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT)
Today, access to vital and continuously changing health advice is almost entirely Web-based. Public health agencies depend on an online triage to manage access to testing. Hanging on to a job, keeping up with school assignments and regaining employment all depend on Internet connectivity, and those most at risk are least likely to have it.

Estimates of the number of U.S. households without Internet access range as high as 30 percent. The Pew Research Center, which has been tracking Internet usage for 20 years, estimates that about three-quarters of homes have broadband Internet service.

The UN declared access to the Internet to be a human right in 2016, and there are increasing calls for a public utility that could provide affordable, world-class Internet service to all Americans. 

Since April, more than 40 bills have been introduced by state legislatures that address some aspect of broadband access. Here’s a sampling:

New York bill A10475 would require every company that delivers Internet services to customers within a municipality to provide basic service to “each residential dwelling in that municipality or unit contained within such residential dwelling or unit” at no cost. Municipalities in which more than one company provides service are to develop rules to apportion responsibility among them.

HB1228 in North Carolina creates a grant program designed to increase access to satellite-based broadband in areas of the state that without access to such services. Grants will be administered by the state’s Department of Information Technology and will go to satellite-based providers. Priority will go to proposals that bring new service to the greatest number of households. 

Ohio HB596 sets out guidelines for debt collection during a 120-day period following the lifting of the state of emergency declared by the governor. (At this writing, the order remains in effect.) It includes broadband Internet with electricity, gas, water and other utility services that may not be disconnected during the specified period due to non-payment by consumers or small businesses.

SF4494, a Minnesota bill, appropriates $8 million for emergency distance learning and broadband access grants. Funds can be used for purposes such as providing broadband access to the households of students otherwise unable to get online and providing them with the equipment necessary to access online learning materials.

Michigan SR1113 addresses the need for affordable and consistent Internet access, saying that he pandemic has made it fundamental to full participation in “education, work and everyday life.” It observes that at a time when the state has transitioned to online learning, more than half a million students in the state do not have Internet service. It asks Congress to fully fund affordable and consistent Internet service for “all communities across the state and the entire country.”

SB3009 in Mississippi would authorize the city of Okolona (pop 2,548) to allow its electric delivery system to be used to provide broadband services to residents. The system would be owned and maintained by the city’s own broadband affiliate or an unaffiliated operator. Customers cannot be required to purchase broadband service as a condition of receiving electricity.

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Carl Smith is a senior staff writer for Governing and covers a broad range of issues affecting states and localities. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @governingwriter.
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