How Congress is Moving to Close the Digital Divide
How Congress is Moving to Close the Digital Divide
How Congress is Moving to Close the Digital Divide

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    My morning routine usually consists of waking up, checking my email, making coffee, and signing on to a Zoom meeting. While I do this, my Mom is also on Zoom teaching her class and my Dad is on a conference call. These things typically happen without any hiccups and we usually think nothing of it.

    Many of us take fast, reliable internet access for granted. Unfortunately, there are tens of millions of Americans without broadband — either because they can’t access or afford it — and millions more who lack the quality of service they need. Even those with broadband access do not necessarily have the devices or digital literacy skills they need to be successful in today’s economy. Digital equity is multifaceted and requires legislation and regulation that approaches the issue in this way. It is an intersectional problem that spans the rural/urban divide and impacts every sector of our economy, from education to health care. 

    Digital Inclusion Week, an online event sponsored by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), presented us with a perfect opportunity to reflect on the digital divide and highlight some of the efforts being made to close it.

    Let’s start with affordability. Affordability is a major reason why millions of Americans do not have internet access. Even if broadband is physically accessible, it may not be affordable. The average cost of an internet plan is $60 a month, which is cost-prohibitive for millions of Americans. A household earning less than $30,000 annually is forced to prioritize paying for rent, groceries, and transportation, leaving less money to pay for essential broadband. This is why 17 percent of low-income households lack an internet subscription. In order to better understand how affordability impacts adoption, we urge the Federal Communications Commission to collect and report data on the price of broadband — including additional fees and equipment rentals that can add up to hundreds of dollars a year — in its annual broadband deployment report.  

    Moreover, the households who cannot afford internet access are disproportionately Black and Hispanic, or live on Tribal land. According to the Pew Research Center, 79 percent of white U.S adults have broadband access, while only 66 percent of Black adults and 61 percent of Hispanic adults do. In addition, the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University found that less than 65% of people living on Tribal land have high-speed broadband access. In addition to the collection and reporting of data on the price of broadband, we would also like the FCC to utilize demographic data (including race, ethnicity, gender, income, and education-level) from the Census Bureau in its annual Broadband Deployment Report as a tool to assess the disproportionate impacts of the digital divide.   

    The Lifeline program is the only broadband subsidy for low-income Americans, making it a critical part of our country’s efforts to close the digital divide and promote digital equity. Lifeline currently provides more than 7.5 million low-income individuals with a $9.25 monthly subsidy for phone or internet service that provides these individuals access to work, education, and healthcare that they would not otherwise have. Despite all of the program’s benefits, just 23 percent of eligible consumers participate. This gap in participation can be attributed in part to a lack of awareness about the program. 

    We support the expansion of the Lifeline program in order to ensure that Lifeline continues to provide a meaningful benefit to low-income Americans. As stated above, the average cost of an internet plan is $60 a month. However, studies show that many Americans can only afford to pay $10 for broadband access. A $50 national broadband subsidy, either through Lifeline or as an entirely new program, would go a long way towards ensuring digital equity and allowing low-income Americans to meaningfully participate in society.

    There are currently a number of efforts in Congress to expand access to affordable high-speed internet that should be enacted to narrow the digital divide. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) introduced the “Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act,” which would provide a $50 broadband subsidy to low-income individuals or a $75 subsidy to households on Tribal lands. The bill, along with Sen. Bennet’s (D-CO) “Bridge Act,” also requires that providers getting deployment funding offer an “affordable option” for low-income consumers, along with any other plans. Policymakers are also focused on subsidies to help get or keep low-income consumers and those financially impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic connected. Both the original and updated “Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act” provide a $50 subsidy to help those in need use this essential service during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

    Additionally, the Senate version of the Accessible, Affordable, Internet for All Act requires studies about Lifeline enrollment and advertising. Any meaningful expansion of Lifeline or other broadband subsidy should not only provide enough funding to enable participants to afford broadband, but also ensure that those eligible are aware of its existence and able to subscribe. This can be done through increased advertising and coordination between federal agencies, states, and community-based-organizations to notify individuals who are eligible for the program about their eligibility and the benefits of the program. Tying deployment funding to offering an affordable broadband option can also help more Americans afford broadband. 

    In addition, proposals that increase competition in the broadband space will ultimately serve to make broadband more affordable. Currently, more than two-thirds of Americans have just one or two options for a broadband provider. Without competition, providers can charge captive audiences as much as they like, for as good or bad of service as they want to offer. Promoting new entrants, including municipal providers, can help lower prices and improve customer service (a thing often cited as something providers are really, really bad at). Our suggestions include funding open access infrastructure, removing overbuilding provisions from federal funding programs, and overturning blocks or bans on municipal broadband. 

    As a next step toward digital inclusion, we need to develop a plan for reducing the cost of internet devices such as laptops and smartphones. Even if a household can afford a monthly internet subscription, there still may be issues with the cost of devices needed to use the internet. Each person in the household needs a device, and a smartphone won’t cut it for everything. One laptop won’t be enough when two students each need their own for school and a parent needs one to be able to work from home. This can be cost-prohibitive for many families, and any digital inclusion strategy must include a plan to get devices to those without one. 

    The “Digital Equity Act of 2019,” sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), includes funding for devices by empowering community organizations and localities. In addition, the “Broadband Adoption and Opportunity Act,” sponsored by Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-AZ), would take a step towards solving this issue by creating a pilot program within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to support public-private partnerships that loan, sell, or give refurbished devices to those in need. In addition, the “Emergency Educational Connections Act of 2020,” introduced by Rep. Grace Meng (D-NY) and Sen. Markey (D-MA), would provide funding through E-Rate to help students and library patrons get devices and hotspots during the pandemic. 

    Finally, it is important to address digital literacy and digital skills. Just because people can access the internet, afford service, and locate the necessary devices, does not mean they have the skills needed to effectively use all these things. Digital skills are even critical in sectors where you might not expect them to be. An analysis from the National Skills Coalition found that one in three American workers across five major sectors (manufacturing, health and social work, hospitality, retail, and construction) has limited or no digital skills. These workers are disproportionately Black and Hispanic, so any solution must address this disparity. 

    The “Digital Equity Act of 2019,” mentioned above, takes a multifaceted approach to narrowing the digital divide. This bill establishes two grant programs: one that provides funding to all 50 States for the creation and implementation of digital equity plans and one that funds digital equity projects by individual groups, coalitions, and/or communities of interest. This would help address all facets of the digital divide, from broadband accessibility to gaps in digital literacy and digital skills among low-income communities.

    Digital Inclusion Week 2020 is a reminder of how far we have come and how far we still have to go to ensure every community has access to fast, affordable internet. To quote FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, “We need to make it a national policy that we reach 100 percent of our population with broadband, no matter who you are or where you live.”

    Photo by NASA on Unsplash.