COVID-19 pandemic highlights gaps in Ariz. broadband internet access




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WASHINGTON — Arizona lawmakers are urging congressional leaders to prioritize emergency funding for high-speed internet access in upcoming COVID-19 relief legislation.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and two dozen other lawmakers sent a letter this week asking Democratic and Republican leaders of the U.S. House and Senate to set aside funding for a temporary emergency relief fund at the Federal Communications Commission that would help small broadband providers continue service for students and low-income families. 

Sinema is also backing related legislation that would set aside $2 billion to compensate small broadband companies for providing free or discounted services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the onset of the pandemic, access to high-speed broadband service has become essential as jobs and schools have shifted online, health care providers deliver remote care, people shop online and civic and social life goes virtual. 

But millions of Americans lack quality internet service, and many more could lose it if they are unable to pay broadband bills because of lost income or jobs, the lawmakers wrote.

The problem is especially dire in rural areas, underserved communities and tribal lands. 

“Expanding broadband for rural communities ensures every Arizona student gets equal access to education during the coronavirus pandemic,” Sinema said in a statement.

Arizona Democratic Reps. Tom O’Halleran, Ruben Gallego and Greg Stanton are also advocating for more support for broadband access amid — and after — the pandemic.

O’Halleran — a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the internet — sent a letter to congressional leaders last month urging them to prioritize broadband access and bridge the “digital divide” in response to COVID-19. 

Congress, he told Arizona Mirror in an interview, has addressed the issue in “dribs and drabs” in the past but now must do so more aggressively to ensure Americans can stay connected, regardless of where they live. “I definitely want to see money go into programs that will facilitate the needs that we have.” Right now, he said, “we have to save lives,” and access to broadband is part of that.

O’Halleran’s expansive district includes much of Arizona’s northern and eastern rural areas, including the majority of the state’s tribal lands.

Gallego called for “robust funding” for broadband development in a statement and pointed to legislation he and other lawmakers introduced to support internet access in Indian Country.

And Stanton spokeswoman Nicole Pasteur said the issue remains “an ongoing priority” for her boss, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and pointed to recent efforts to promote internet service on tribal lands.

Arizona trailing on broadband access

Arizona ranks in the bottom half of states when it comes to internet coverage, speed and price, according to a report by BroadbandNow Research. 

Some 22% of American households, about 28 million households, did not access the internet from home, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. The problem is especially dire on tribal lands, where lack of access to fixed and mobile service is far higher.

“This public health crisis has shone a brighter light on this issue,” O’Halleran spokeswoman Kaitlin Hooker said. 

Social distancing guidelines have led to a sharp rise in broadband and cellular usage in recent weeks, according to the Pew Research Center. Amid the rise, many communications companies have pledged to avoid service disruptions through mid-May, waive late fees and open up hotspots to all Americans. Some have also lifted data caps, offering free or discounted services and taking other steps to support continued access.

Since March, Congress has enacted three laws in response to the pandemic, including a $2 trillion package that included funding for rural broadband deployment, but not for small broadband providers to sustain services and upgrades for students and low-income families. 

Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called for a massive bill that would improve access to high-speed internet and shore up the nation’s infrastructure in other areas, such as increasing access to safe drinking water, strengthening the nation’s electric grid and transit systems and toughening environmental rules.

But she has since narrowed her focus. On Wednesday, she and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) outlined an “interim” coronavirus proposal that would include $250 billion for small businesses; $150 billion for state and local governments; $100 billion for health care; and an increase in funding for food aid programs.

Beyond that, the pair called for a larger package that would provide “transformational relief” to the U.S. public as it weathers the crisis.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sought approval of $250 billion more in small businesses funding Thursday. But Democrats objected because the bill didn’t include more money for hospitals and protections for minority-owned businesses, and the Senate adjourned without approving legislation.

O’Halleran said he hopes the package that follows the interim bill contains infrastructure-related provisions. 

“There’s nothing good about his crisis, but … hopefully the Congress and others in America are more understanding now of the shortcomings of our internet system throughout America,” he said.