When Aretha Franklin’s “Who’s Zoomin’ Who” topped the dance charts in 1985, no one could have predicted that “zoom” would take on a whole new meaning. Whether you’ve started using the video communications platform Zoom to conference your colleagues, chat with family, or virtually visit your doctor, it seems like everyone is zooming someone.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I can’t remember the last time a day went by without a Zoom meeting. I use it to see my family in Buffalo, New York, edit documents with my colleagues in real-time, and end the day at a virtual happy hour with friends.

Using my high-speed internet connection to connect with people through platforms like Zoom is a technological miracle, but nearly 18 million Americans aren’t able to experience it, according to the FCC.

We’re making progress, thanks to an enormous amount of private investment – the number of Americans lacking access to fixed broadband dropped 14% in 2018 – but 18 million is unacceptable.

Fixing the digital divide

Too many people who cannot participate in the internet ecosystem in the best of times. But in really tough times, it means that a great swath of Americans don’t have the most important tool for working, learning, socializing, and accessing life-saving information during one of the most challenging periods in modern history.

Zoom and other video communications platforms are great inventions, but where is the bridge to the future if millions of people are at risk of being left behind? Families have suddenly found themselves with kids who need to learn, but no schools are open, and they don’t have access to the virtual classroom.

These families fall into an especially hellish section of the digital divide known as the homework gap. The homework gap affects 12 million children across the country, according to the Senate Joint Economic Committee.

Last year, the Associated Press found that 18% of U.S. students lack reliable internet access at home and struggle with school assignments that require it. Most of these students are likely to be students of color, from rural and low-income families, or in households with lower parental education levels.

Every student needs quality internet

The kids who were struggling to complete their homework before the pandemic are the same ones whose education is being hit hardest by the coronavirus. “Most epidemics are guided missiles attacking those who are poor, disenfranchised and have underlying health problems,” Dr. Thomas Frieden, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told Kaiser Health News.

While I’m complaining about getting dressed for another Zoom meeting, there are millions of Americans who work jobs that cannot use it. They need to be able to make money to support their families but don’t have the broadband connection nor the digital skills that empower them to work remotely.

Home internet use and the associated network traffic is up by as much as 50% in the United States, according to  USTelecom. We are living in an age when we can no longer allow geographical barriers and insufficient safety nets to stop us from bringing high-speed internet to every American. It’s time for Congress to step in.

First, we need to know with specificity where broadband internet access is lacking. To that end, Congress should give the FCC the dollars it needs to improve its broadband coverage map – estimated at approximately $65 million.

Next, based on better broadband coverage maps, Congress should provide the necessary funds needed to connect every corner of America that is unserved. The FCC’s time-tested reverse auction process could be applied to award the funds on a competitive basis.

This fix has a real cost, but in the long run, it’s a small investment when it amounts to the difference between more Americans being able to fully participate in our internet-connected world versus more Americans being left out.

The pandemic has given us the opportunity to see that a high-speed internet connection helps life to go on and no American – rich or poor, urban or rural – should have their life put on hold because they lack home broadband.

Today the question shouldn’t be “Who’s Zoomin’ Who?” It should be “Who can’t Zoom anybody?”

Originally published at Commercial Appeal