There is (or should be) no dispute that the COVID-19 pandemic, at 1 million deaths and counting, is among the worst things the United States has ever endured. But think for a moment how much worse it would be if not for the internet.
For more than two years, good internet service has allowed many employees to keep showing up for work without exposing themselves to the risk of infection. It has helped Americans search for available vaccines and booster shots. It has allowed health practitioners to move much of their patient contact online while the crush of COVID sufferers overwhelmed hospitals and clinics. It has allowed schools to continue holding classes, theater groups to stage performances, churches to meet for worship, 12-step groups to lead newcomers toward recovery.
And during those long months of lockdown, the availability of online social platforms helped ease the isolation that so many people felt. Friends could connect face to face. And in those heartbreaking last moments when loved ones could say goodbye only over a computer connection, internet service was able to substitute — however inadequately — for deathbed visits.
Yet this vital digital lifeline passes some Americans by. An estimated 22% of U.S. homes lack an internet connection. And among those who have at least some access, hundreds of thousands struggle with agonizingly slow connections — that is, too sluggish for engaging in real-time activities like meetings or doing online learning.
President Joe Biden zeroed in on that last deficiency in remarks delivered last month. "In the 21st century in America," he said, "no parent should ever have to pull into McDonald's or a fast-food chain to literally hook up to the internet in their car so their kid can do their homework online."
Biden was promoting the Affordable Connectivity Program, a $14 billion slice of the infrastructure bill that he signed into law last year. A highlight of the program is its subsidy of high-speed internet access for low-income households. Americans who qualify will receive a $30 monthly subsidy ($75 if they live on tribal lands) for high-speed service. The initiative will reduce monthly internet costs to zero for those who get their service from one of 20 participating providers.
One of those providers is Comcast, a primary provider of technology and media services in the Twin Cities and around the globe. One of the company's stated goals is to help improve internet access for low-income people. Its participation in the ACP initiative is a natural complement to its longstanding efforts to help reduce the digital divide.
Customers who use their credit to buy access from a different qualifying service can do so, but the credit may not cover the entire cost.
The infrastructure bill includes money for expansion of broadband service into underserved areas. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo aptly compared the initiative to the Rural Electrification Act nearly a century ago. Then as now, a technological development has become an essential element for commerce, education, public safety and standard of living. Like electricity then, the internet is as much a conduit of commerce as any bridge or highway.
Biden reminded his listeners that the internet is no longer a luxury — it's a necessity. He's right, and making it more affordable for an estimated 48 million households is a notable achievement.