A photo of two little girls camping outside of a Taco Bell restaurant to access its free wifi has gone viral and for good reason. Kids are returning to school whether partly or entirely online. Access to reliable and fast internet connectivity is no longer a luxury but a necessity. These girls were prompted to seek out what they did not have at home. 

Thankfully, just as private individuals have stepped in to provide help to this family, private companies are also stepping up to expand broadband access for all Americans. It comes not a moment too soon. 

The backstory

Recently, someone posted a photo of two unidentified girls sitting on the sidewalk in front of a Taco Bell with computers on their lap and a pencil and paper in front of them.

Employees of the fast-food chain spoke with them after seeing them sitting outside the restaurant for some time. The girls were apparently using the chain restaurant’s free wifi to do work.

As a parent, I shudder at the thought of what could have happened to those little girls in such a vulnerable position. They could have been kidnapped, lured away, robbed, or attacked. I also recognize that many kids are latch-key kids, like I was growing up, and do what they need to do to get their work done.

This story has a happy ending though for these girls. The school district was able to identify them and send them a hot spot so that they can work from home. Generous people have also raised over $130,000 for this family through GoFundMe.

We face a new reality

The pandemic’s forced shutdowns and work- and learn-from-home orders has shifted much of our daily routines and life online. Getting along without reliable and fast internet is nearly impossible.

This year, millions of students have or will return to schools through virtual learning. Yet, not every family has or can afford internet service at home apart from their smartphones.

Sadly, safe alternatives that kids can turn to such as public libraries have yet to reopen. Lawmakers enforcing shutdowns should take note.

This is a challenge for the public and private sector.

According to a report from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), at the end of 2017 21.3 million Americans–or 6.5 percent of the population–lacked access to broadband internet. Other estimates put that number at 42 million Americans, still others think it’s above 160 million people (half of the U.S. population). 

Bottom line: There is a massive digital divide and too many people are on the wrong side. 

While we tend to think of low-income communities first, rural America actually suffers tremendously from a lack of access to broadband.

Help is on the way

Since the pandemic, the private sector has been mobilizing resources to expand access to families that would not otherwise have internet access or whose service might lapse due to unemployment.

In March, when the FCC asked broadband providers to keep Americans connected, they responded resoundingly. Over 800 internet providers (serving probably millions of users) have offered free service, suspended service cuts for customers who could not pay, and increased broadband speeds. Comcast’s own CEO donated $5 million to buy 50,000 Chromecast laptop computers for Philadelphia students. 

Some people believe there’s a role for government to play during this crisis. As part of the next COVID relief package being debated, Congress has considered an Emergency Broadband Benefit to reimburse internet providers up to $50 per month for discounts on “normal” home broadband bills for families of laid off or furloughed workers. 

As we have maintained from the start of this pandemic, any stimulus aid must be temporary, targeted, and flexible. We do not want lawmakers using this health and economic crisis to institute new entitlement benefits.

The desire to make taxpayers foot the bill to help Americans stay connected must be weighed against other competing interests, the costs of a new entitlement, and unintended consequences. For example, could this benefit crowd out efforts already underway by broadband providers or charitable efforts?

And this benefit does not solve the larger problems of sustainable connectivity and affordability for all Americans. 

The way forward

Even after this pandemic is over, Americans return to work, and life returns to “normal,” we will still grapple with a digital divide. It’s incumbent on the public and private sector to figure out ways to innovate and expand internet access across America.

Just as urban and suburban Americans enjoy cheap access to quality, high-speed internet, we want Americans in rural areas to be able to get online as well.  

To remain competitive in the global economy and to prepare our children for a digital world, we must find free-market solutions that will improve connectivity for every American.