Whether it’s a Zoom call for work, online classes for students, telehealth consultations, E-commerce, or staying connected to family and friends, digital access has become even more critical during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet by some estimates, more than 30 million Americans live in communities that lack broadband infrastructure, or don’t provide minimally acceptable speeds to log onto the internet successfully.
Rural areas, some tribal lands, and under-served Black and Brown communities are among those often lacking adequate access.
The broadband access issue is getting major attention right now. The White House, members of Congress, and civil rights organizations, including the National Urban League and Color of Change, are pushing for equity.
“Now, more than ever, we need broadband access in every community across the nation,” said Marc Morial, president/CEO of the National Urban League. “Gaps in broadband means that students fall behind their peers and small businesses fall behind their competitors—especially in communities of color.”
The Urban League has developed a new comprehensive strategy, called The Lewis Latimer Plan for Digital Equity and Inclusion. It addresses gaps in access to broadband access that prevent some segments of the population from benefiting from the digital economy, which results in financial and educational inequalities.
The plan was inspired by Lewis Latimer, a 19th Century Black scientist, draftsman and soldier whose parents were born enslaved. He worked with Alexander Graham Bell on the development of telephones and Thomas Edison on electric lighting. While Latimer was a key contributor to groundbreaking inventions, he had no ownership stake in the vast businesses and wealth they spawned.
The Urban League plan seeks to honor Latimer’s legacy. The goal is to connect every household to broadband networks; effectively utilize the networks to improve delivery of essential services; and create new opportunities for underserved communities to participate in the growth of the digital economy.
The plan also provides specific recommendations on fixing key issues such as the availability gap (i.e. service not being available in certain communities) and the affordability gap. The cost of subscribing to web service remains an obstacle for many households.
Additionally, the Urban League’s plan calls on the Department of Commerce and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the powerful regulatory agency, to collect information that allows the public and government alike to understand and evaluate how the private sector is improving diversity, equity and inclusion. It also recommends establishing a federal Office of Digital Equity to coordinate training, and restructuring the FCC’s Lifeline Program, which subsidizes communication services for low-income households.
“Millions of Americans enjoy the access to information, entertainment and commerce that broadband provides,” according to Blair Levin, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “But the unfortunate reality is that communities that lack access to broadband are the ones who could benefit from it the most,” he said in a statement. “Our leaders need to step up and address the gaps that are holding back large segments of the population.”
In late March, President Joe Biden rolled out the American Jobs Plan, a sweeping initiative designed to repair America’s infrastructure and create millions of good jobs. It includes significant investments in broadband. The $2 trillion measure must be approved by Congress.
Meanwhile, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-SC) and Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, have introduced legislation around digital access in the 117th Congress.
The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act would invest more than $94 billion to build high-speed broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved communities to close the digital divide.
In a statement, Clyburn said the pandemic has “exposed the urgency of ensuring universal access to high-speed internet.” He noted that closing the gap would have a “dramatic impact” on rural and other communities.
Data shows that more white families utilize home broadband internet than Black or Latinx households. The disparities have especially impacted students of color who had problems connecting remotely while learning during the pandemic.
“The digital divide continues to be a barrier to opportunity for entire communities,” said Sen. Cory Booker, a co-sponsor of the bill, in a statement. “This legislation will make a much needed investment in broadband infrastructure to help ensure that all communities have reliable and affordable access to the internet.”
Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-GA) is also among the supporters. “From students to farmers to small business owners, expanding accessible, affordable internet and strengthening rural broadband will improve local economies, help students excel in a rapidly changing online learning landscape,” he noted in a statement.
“Late last year, Congress invested in broadband connectivity to help fight the pandemic through the Emergency Broadband Benefit,” said Geoffrey Starks, a Harvard alum and Yale-trained attorney who is the only Black FCC Commissioner. “This legislation takes the vital next steps—following through on digital equity, making big investments in broadband infrastructure, and focusing our resources in the most efficient manner.”
Rashad Robinson, president of Color Of Change, views broadband as an equity issue.
“Black communities and other marginalized groups rely on a fair and racially just internet — free of interference from telecom giants — to be heard in our democracy by the most powerful forces and reach the marketplace of jobs, commerce, and ideas,” he said in a statement. “The pandemic has underscored the reality that internet access is a clear equity issue. Failing to meet this fact with policy will leave Black people behind.”