As schools, workplaces and public services shut down in the age of coronavirus, online connections are keeping Americans in touch with vital institutions and each other. But that’s not much of an option when fast internet service is hard to come by.

Although efforts to extend broadband service have made progress in recent years, tens of millions of people are still left out, largely because phone and cable companies hesitate to invest in far-flung rural areas. Government subsidies in the billions haven’t fully fixed the problem.

More than 21 million Americans don’t have access to high-speed Internet, according to the FCC.

Many more simply can’t afford broadband. U.S. broadband costs more than in many comparable countries — an average of $58 a month compared to $46.55 across 29 nations, according to a 2018 Federal Communications Commission report.

Such disconnected people “already have to work harder to tread water,” said Chris Mitchell, who advocates for community broadband service at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “I don’t think people appreciated the magnitude of the problem.”

Even in cities, the high cost of internet access means many go without. Low-cost local alternatives such as libraries and cafes have shut down.

In some states, educators say they are feeling the sting of the digital divide — the gap between those with fast, modern Web connections and those who don’t.

The burden often falls on younger students, who may struggle to complete classwork even during a normal school week due to technological and economic barriers. But the disruptions of coronavirus raise the question of whether the U.S. government and the telecom industry should have done more to cure the country’s digital divide well before a pandemic gripped the nation.

“With coronavirus, we’re about to expose just how challenging our digital divide is, and just how unequal access to broadband is,” Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat on the FCC, told The Washington Post. The technological troubles that could soon burden teachers and students reflects the widely felt though overlooked hardships that can come from a lack of connectivity.

As schools nationwide weigh their options, the FCC has sought to offer a digital lifeline, shoring up commitments from AT&T, Verizon and dozens of Internet providers to help people stay online, even if they ultimately fall behind on their bills.

Some telecom giants also said they would make it easier for people to access free wireless hotspots in their communities. Call your provider or visit their website to see what assistance is available in your area.

“As the coronavirus outbreak spreads and causes a series of disruptions, it is imperative that Americans stay connected,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

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