Tech Policy Is a Public Health IssueMarch 12, 2020
In response to COVID-19, public health officials have recommended a suite of changes to our daily behavior. One of the major strategies for slowing the disease’s spread is “social distancing,” which the CDC defines as “remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible.” Even small shops like PK are doing their part and moving to telework.
To enable social distancing, institutions including schools, governments, workplaces, and libraries are moving many of their daily functions online. The successes — and failures — of these efforts can tell us a lot about how tech policy is (or isn’t) working in America, and where it needs to go.
The biggest hurdle is access to broadband at home. Without a stable connection, it’s difficult-to-impossible to work or attend classes remotely. If video is involved, you need broadband. Going to a public space (such as a library) just to use broadband or a public hotspot puts people back at risk for infection and completely negates the benefit of social distancing. Without high speed, reliable broadband available to the home, we’re forcing an entire swath of the population to choose between working/attending school, or losing out on their education (or potentially their paycheck). The FCC and other officials should learn from local examples of wi-fi hotspot loaner programs that have helped close the connectivity gap for low income students, such as this example in Alexandria, Virginia. The work that Public Knowledge does to promote broadband deployment and affordability is all about making sure it’s there when we need it.
And if your internet service provider can discriminate against certain kinds of traffic or services, teleworking and remote education software — from Zoom to bespoke remote connection setups — is completely at the mercy of your ISP. Plus, telehealth is increasingly understood not just as a way for people who are too far from a doctor to get help, but as a way for doctors to see more people quickly, and to reduce contamination risk. Vital, bandwidth-intensive services like telehealth shouldn’t need special deals with ISPs to avoid being throttled, or subject to discriminatory data caps. We agree with FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel that the FCC should study the impact of data caps and determine where this sort of preferencing can be eliminated because of the inequities and competitive harms they can create. Finally, it shouldn’t be necessary to point out that people who are staying home might watch a lot of TV. Not only does streaming video require robust broadband, what services people watch shouldn’t be affected by interconnection spats or other disputes. Our battle to protect net neutrality is all about making sure broadband remains truly useful to people at all times, including emergencies.
In short, the infrastructure has to be in place, it has to be affordable, and it has to be open.
The less immediate (but just as important) thing to remember is simple: Quarantine is boring. Being stuck at home for days or weeks on end is only enjoyable if you’re a hardened introvert (which, to be fair, many of us are). The CDC specifically recommends including games, books, and other entertainment in a disaster preparedness kit. Technologies like controlled digital lending allow libraries to reach their patrons even when those patrons can’t make it to the physical library; they can check out materials and return them without ever leaving their home. Kids can continue to complete their homework, adults can read, everybody wins. Without the twin technologies of broadband access and controlled digital lending, we create a new digital divide among those families who can afford access to the rich knowledge of the internet, and those who can’t.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a turning point for tech policy; things which had been touted as largely hypothetical benefits (telework, distance learning, telehealth) are now becoming a reality for millions of people. How things work (or don’t) in the months ahead will shape communications policy and disaster preparedness for years to come. PK will continue focusing on these and other issues — even while we telework.
About Meredith Whipple
Meredith is the Digital Content Manager at Public Knowledge, where she focuses on writing and communications for the organization. Meredith has an extensive background in internet policy, including previously holding positions at the Center for Democracy and Technology, Hewlett-Packard, Consumers Union, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and the Federal Communications Commission. Meredith earned her Master's degree in Public Affairs from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin, and her Bachelor's degrees in Communications and Political Science from the Ohio State University in Columbus. In her free time Meredith is active in performing arts in DC.