Broadband's Big Breakdown
Broadband's Big Breakdown
This was supposed to be the year of superfast wireless 5G. Instead, providers are battling to keep the creaky old internet online.
By David Rocks, Rebecca Penty, and Molly Schuetz

This spring the U.S. government was planning to focus on its strategy for rolling out fifth-generation wireless networks, bringing faster internet connections to power movie downloads, telemedicine, self-driving cars, and more. Officials want to see 5G, now available in only some cities, ramped up quickly and to keep Chinese companies such as Huawei Technologies Co. from dominating the critical networking technology. Then the new coronavirus hit, sending workers and schoolchildren home to try to do their jobs and continue their education on laptops.

Suddenly 5G took a back seat to a much more pressing problem: Tens of millions of Americans don’t have access to reliable internet connectivity, or can’t afford it, and will have trouble communicating, working, and attending classes online without it.

Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, asked internet providers on March 13 to commit to a 60-day grace period during which they wouldn’t charge late fees or cut off-service to people and small businesses who don’t pay their bills. He also asked them to open up Wi-Fi hotspots, expanding their reach to nonsubscribers. But after that period ends, the number of people without internet could become even larger.

Advocates for expanded regulatory authority over broadband now see more need for it than ever. “The broadband companies used to attack me for utility-style regulation,” says former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. “We’re talking about critical services.”

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March 30 - April 06, 2020