The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the world in a number of unexpected ways. According to The New York Times, one unexpected group that is facing difficulty during quarantines and shutdowns are those without at-home wi-fi access.
Any frequenter of Starbucks or similar coffee shops has likely seen customers that purchase a coffee and spend significant time on their computers accessing the free wi-fi these establishments provide. The trope has become so well-known that movies and television shows alike have poked fun at or romanticized the author/screenwriter/aspiring journalist too poor to afford connection at home, but still working toward their dream at the local café.
Unfortunately, during the pandemic the lack of wi-fi is no laughing matter. According to the NYT report, citizens all over the country are parking in the lots of libraries, cafes, schools, and other public locations with wi-fi in order to connect to the internet.
Several years ago there was a large debate over net neutrality that largely still rages on. The debate essentially came down to whether or not the internet should be classified as a public utility, in which case it would be up to the government to ensure Americans had ready access. Ultimately net neutrality lost, and ISPs continue to provide internet at a premium. However, given the current circumstances, it is possible this debate should be looked over once again.
Some companies are doing their best to help people in these tough times. The New England Cable & Telecommunication Association (NECTA), a five-state regional trade association representing substantially all private cable telecommunications companies in Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, have signed the FCC’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge to help ensure customers continue to have internet access during the COVID-19 pandemic. NECTA announced today that they have in fact extended these services as the pandemic has continued. According to the press release:
As part of this commitment, NECTA members have opened over 10,000 free WiFi hotspots throughout the state for anyone to use, giving thousands of students, parents and workers access to fast and reliable internet to help them work, learn and shop.
In addition to opening thousands of free WiFi hotspots and continuing to meet increased consumer demand, NECTA members have extended their comprehensive COVID-19 response policies to expand internet access for individuals and families who need it most, including low-income families and those with students now taking classes from home.
So there is help out there for those that need it, but moving forward from COVID-19 these services will no longer be available. It raises the question of whether internet is as essential as power, heat, and running water to U.S. residents. We’ll find out as things return to normal.