This year, as never before, the internet has sustained our national economy and enabled those who use it to maintain some semblance of normal life.

In this unprecedented time, we have come to rely on the internet for working from home, learning in a virtual classroom, receiving health care through telemedicine, shopping for essentials, having Zoom visits with friends, and being entertained and informed by the rich content available over an ever-growing array of streaming services.

We have come to realize that broadband is a necessary service that, for our national well-being, must be available and affordable to all, whether urban or rural, rich or poor. Now more than ever, we understand that broadband must be extended to places where it does not reach and be made accessible for Americans who have not been able to afford it.

For years, legislators have urged that government provide the funds to fill the broadband gaps. While some funding has been provided, progress has been slow. Now, with a focused national understanding of the internet’s critical importance, the time is ripe for Congress in the next coronavirus relief and economic stimulus bill to push past partisanship and finish the job.

Federal funding should be directed only to unserved areas. Dollars should not be deployed in areas where broadband currently exists. And before new funding is put to work, we need to know where the broadband gaps are.

The Federal Communications Commission’s current broadband coverage maps fail to reveal either the extent of the broadband deficit or the precise places where the gaps exist. The FCC, however, recently took initial steps to implement new broadband maps, noting that funding needs to be provided by Congress before the work can be done.

The estimated cost of making the coverage maps truly useful is $65 million; the next stimulus package should contain that funding in addition to the dollars for deployment that will be based on the better maps.

In addition, the various federal programs addressing broadband deployment should be combined into a single national program. Program consolidation is overdue, and the injection of major new funding presents a prime opportunity to greatly simplify and streamline the program structure.

The FCC should also modernize the Lifeline Program to make it simpler for low-income families who need the $9.25 monthly subsidy to help pay for broadband. The SNAP program, which distributes food assistance benefits efficiently to participants by making monthly deposits directly into their electronic accounts, offers an example of what already works. A SNAP-like benefit could be established for Lifeline so program participants can shop among carriers and easily pay for the broadband or phone services that best meet their needs.

America can celebrate the success of its internet experience, from the first commercialization in the early 1990s through the present time. This year, as the infrastructure was tested as never before, it has proven resilient and equal to the task of carrying the vast traffic increase occasioned by the pandemic. Unlike Europe’s networks, which have faltered due to the European Union’s different regulatory structure, America’s internet has remained durable and fully capable of performing under extraordinary circumstances.

Policymakers have long been struggling over stimulus funding, but the importance of connecting all Americans presents an opportunity for consensus. Broadband powers nearly every sector of our national economy and enhances our quality of life. I believe it will prove to be the X factor for our recovery.

Originally published at The Mercury News