Has access to the internet become a fundamental right?
“The people have a right to the privilege of education, and it is the duty of the state to guard and maintain that right.”
Constitution of North Carolina
Article I, Sec. 15
Every state in the nation has an educational mandate. Some states, like North Carolina, go a step further and enshrine it as a fundamental right. Students in North Carolina have a fundamental right to a “sound, basic education”1. What exactly does this sound, basic education look like in our new COVID-19 world? Regardless of where you stand on the issue of quarantining, the reality is we are going to see a very different educational landscape for the foreseeable future. District leaders here in NC and throughout the country are preparing for additional closings next year and periods of “remote learning.” Aside from the instructional challenges for educators, there are real material challenges for students in a remote learning environment. Without access to high quality, reliable broadband service, it is impossible to even begin to address these challenges2. As a result, children throughout North Carolina (and the nation) are falling and will continue to fall further behind those with adequate resources.
Is it time to talk about the internet as a public utility? Perhaps. As a result of the pandemic one thing has become abundantly clear…access to the internet is a right3. Millions of Americans under stay-at-home orders are now relying on the internet for basic necessities like food, access to healthcare, and yes…school.
What does broadband as a right look like? I believe it looks like a series of good pieces of legislation and policies that ensure access and affordability for all North Carolinians4. Members of the NC General Assembly have proposed solutions and time is of the essence.
As a state we need to ensure North Carolinians have affordable access:
HB1122: Provide affordable broadband access to NC – “The Broadband Infrastructure Office shall develop a strategy to support the affordability of broadband service, including potential partnerships and private sources of funding to support the efforts of the pilot program.”
As a state we need to ensure all of our schools have full access:
HB 1071: Maximizing our eligibility for federal funds for school connectivity – “There is appropriated from the General Fund to the Department of Public Instruction for the 2020-2021 fiscal year the sum of four million six hundred thousand dollars ($4,600,000) in recurring funds and the sum of fifteen million dollars ($15,000,000) in nonrecurring funds to be used for the School Connectivity Initiative”
As a state we need to give local municipalities the tools to meet their unique broadband needs:
Senate Bill 769: Municipal Broadband Expansion – “a city may lease a part of the city-owned public enterprise to be operated and used as a component of a wired or wireless network”
As a state we need to provide funding to ensure local broadband expansion:
House Bill 1105: COVID/Supplementary G.R.E.A.T. Grand Period – “The Department of Information Technology shall provide a special supplementary grant process to accelerate the provision of broadband access through the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology grant program.”
Hopefully, one of the lessons we have learned from the COVID pandemic is that although we are resilient, we were not and are not prepared for extended remote learning. Teachers need more professional development and parents need support and hardware, but this is meaningless if we do not address our most pressing and basic need in infrastructure.
Small America vs. Big Internet, Planet Money: https://www.npr.org/transcripts/865908114