The digital divide existed long before COVID-19 — let’s make sure it doesn’t live on after
Can you imagine what the past year would have been like without broadband internet?
Telework would be nearly impossible, so if your office closed, you would likely be out of a job. Finding new employment would be a challenge without the help of sites like LinkedIn or Monster.com, and you wouldn’t even be able to knock on doors with your resume amid widespread closures of public spaces. If your child’s school has closed, they would have to sit out on virtual classes while their peers log onto Zoom, and might instead have to get lessons and homework from physical drop boxes — if at all. And good luck figuring out how to get the vaccine without Google to help locate vaccination sites, providers, and eligibility requirements.
The difficulties of life without broadband are not limited to the pandemic, however. People who can’t afford or access broadband — who are disproportionately people of color, rural, and low-income — have not had equitable access to employment, education, and other needs for decades, and the resulting digital divide further entrenches systemic inequities that harm marginalized communities. As it turns out, not having broadband access will significantly stunt personal and economic opportunities whether or not there’s a pandemic. That’s the reality of living in the 21st century. It’s time our leaders respond accordingly.
The good news is that the government is already taking steps to bridge this divide. In December, Congress created the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB), a program, which will provide up to $50 for families to access broadband internet ($75 on Tribal lands). The FCC has already finished its rulemaking and the benefit will be available soon. Not long after, Congress passed the latest COVID-19 relief package, which included $7 billion in funding aimed particularly at helping elementary and secondary school students to obtain internet connectivity and devices for learning at home. These initiatives have the potential to change the lives of millions without the financial means to access broadband across the country, and we applaud the FCC and Congress for taking action.
But there is still much more to be done. The digital divide predates COVID and it will live on if we do not put measures into place to ensure every person can access broadband well beyond the pandemic. The government should treat broadband like the necessity it is in today’s world — a part of the fabric that weaves our nation together.
Shortly after the stimulus package passed, Congress introduced the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, sponsored by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), which would help sustain equitable broadband access and improve educational and employment opportunities for marginalized communities. The AAIA Act would extend the life of the EBB program by providing an additional $6 billion in funds — current funding levels could run out as quickly as within 3-6 months. These funds will ensure that families that are able to finally access broadband will not suddenly lose the service nearly as quickly as they were able to obtain it.
In addition to bolstering the EBB, the legislation would also take steps to include data collection and transparency surrounding broadband services, expand digital inclusion and equity efforts to address other factors preventing households from adopting broadband, and would preempt state laws that prevent municipalities from deploying their own broadband services. Finally, the AAIA Act would acknowledge and address the digital divide by prioritizing infrastructure deployment to unserved, underserved, and mid-tier service areas, including on Tribal lands in a way that ensures sufficient speeds, assures there will be affordable access plans for consumers, and ensures that the workers who build these networks will be able to exercise their collective bargaining rights.
Last week, the Senate rightly turned its attention to the AAIA in a Commerce Committee hearing. We urge Congress to take swift action on the AAIA in the coming weeks, and enact this vital legislation.
For its own part, the FCC did well by rolling out the EBB, but there’s much more it can do, especially when President Biden selects a 5th Commissioner. Many of us have been waiting for a new appointee in hopes they will help expand digital equality in more ways than one. Not only could they assist in taking steps to expand access to broadband and the quality of the service, they should also restore net neutrality protections gutted by the Trump administration. Service providers should not be allowed to make accessing certain internet content easier or harder based on their political views or business interests. Broadband access is less meaningful if our internet is not free and open.
The new chair should also improve and expand eligibility for the Lifeline program, which provides subsidies to qualifying low-income households to access broadband. Whoever the president picks will have a major opportunity to take a leading role in the fight for digital equality — and we hope they take it.
While the pandemic has made broadband an even more acute and urgent need, the digital divide has existed since the dawn of the World Wide Web. It’s another one of the pre-existing inequities laid bare by COVID-19. As the government continues to respond to the public health crisis, it must acknowledge that these inequities won’t just end with the final vaccine shot. We must take the lessons COVID has shown us about our own society and let them guide our priorities as we enter a new, post-pandemic era.
Kate Ruane is Senior Legislative Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.
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