There is one way that the federal government can quickly provide broadband to those without it. The government should buy piles of portable WiFi hotspots that work on cellular networks and distribute them to homes that need the broadband to function.
Distributing hotspots is only half of the needed solution. The cellular carriers will want to be compensated for all of the broadband usage on the cellular networks, and the federal government should just write a lump sum checks to Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and the smaller cellular carriers so that people using these hotspots can get the broadband for free during the crisis. We can’t let the carriers bill this as if it is normal cellular data or everybody working at home would get a bill for $500 per month. One interesting idea is for the cellular carriers to connect these hotspots to the newly released spectrum band they’re touting as 5G – they could then claim that 5G saved the day!
The federal government should also distribute funding now to beef up cellular networks. The FCC was already planning to distribute $9 billion later this year using the newly created 5G Fund which is aimed at improving rural 4G. Let’s fund this now out of coronavirus funding and ask the carriers for an accelerated plan to improve cellular data coverage now.
The final challenge is getting the WiFi hotspots into the right hands. This could be done through employers asking for hotspots for employees and for school systems asking for hotspots for students. Those two groups could do the heavy lifting of identifying the homes that have the most immediate need for a broadband solution.
Most urban ISPs have announced plans to make it easier on folks without broadband, but none of those plans helps the millions of rural homes without broadband today. As a country, there may be no better use of federal money than to enable millions of homes to comply with stay-at-home directives while remaining productive. Every employee we can keep working is one less person that is going to need other assistance due to the crisis. Everybody benefits if we can keep students on track to finish the school year.
I’ve heard giant numbers like a trillion dollars, being thrown around that will be needed to keep the economy afloat. What I’m suggesting would cost only a tiny percentage of that. It’s also an idea that will create a greater dollar benefit than the cost of the program. Keeping folks working and paying taxes might be the best possible use of federal funding during this emergency.
We could skip the hotspots and instead subsidize data plans on cellphones. However, using a hotspot makes it easier to create one connection per household. We also don’t want the hotspots to roam, and activating data on cellphones would likely invite people to leave the home.
We also need a fast solution. People need broadband to work at home now, not 3 months or 6 months from now. We don’t want to create a lot of red tape for this and we don’t run this funding through existing programs like SBA or E-Rate, because doing so means nobody gets a hotspot this year. This is a national emergency and we need to treat it as such.
When this crisis is over we hopefully will finally have the discussion about providing more funding for building rural broadband infrastructure – but those are multi-year plans and don’t help with the immediate problem. We need a solution for those without broadband or we’re going to pay a big price for inaction. Getting a mobile hotspot to somebody trying to work in a home provides a solution immediately.
If the federal government doesn’t tackle this, states might want to consider it. Nobody understands more than local politicians the societal benefit of keeping people working. We can either spend a few hundred dollars per home to get broadband or we can spend thousands for the same homes if people can’t work and are unemployed – the math is simple.