As Congress dithers, private organizations step up to bridge digital divide
Even as lawmakers in Washington advance both of President Biden’s signature proposals to strengthen and expand America’s social safety net, it is doing conspicuously little to address one of the more pressing issues facing low-income communities of color across the country: a lack of access to affordable and reliable broadband internet.
Families living in communities with limited internet access can’t take classes or submit schoolwork from home. They can’t schedule telemedicine visits with their doctors, or access digital health portals or look up nutrition information. They can’t work online, bank online, apply for jobs online, reskill or start a company online.
The dearth of access to reliable broadband has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. The $65 billion allocated under the bipartisan infrastructure plan is not just a small portion, for example, of the infrastructure bill’s overall $1.2 trillion price tag but also does little to solve the cycle of digital poverty.
With Congress failing to take meaningful action on one of the most serious threats facing underserved communities across the nation, a diverse collection of private organizations — from Robert F. Smith’s Vista Equity Partners to the National Urban League — are stepping to the plate with bold ideas about how to expand broadband access. Congress should take note of what needs to be done.
First, we need to make high-speed internet available to everyone, everywhere — no matter where they live or who they are. Second, we need to make the internet affordable. No one should be priced out of the future — or the present. Third, we need to democratize access to the hardware and software people need to take full advantage of the internet’s capabilities. Fourth, we need a maintenance ecosystem — digital educators, designers, repair workers, and accessibility consultants — to ensure improvements last long into the future. This can create jobs too.
If we achieve these goals, we could transform a vicious cycle into a virtuous one.
The benefits of connection, just like the harms of disconnection, are compounding. Providing broadband to families on Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program would dramatically improve the quality and accessibility of care and reduce its cost. And, according to the National Urban League, it also would close 70 percent of the homework gap — the 17 million students who don’t have internet at home. This is significant as academic achievement for students of color has either a positive domino effect for future higher education, career, and economic empowerment, or limiting one with negative socio-economic impacts.
Democratizing broadband access would also dramatically upgrade our global competitiveness by bringing tens of millions of Americans more fully into the digital economy. This would include a large number of African Americans by helping us take a major step toward closing the racial wealth gap — a goal that, when achieved, could add $1.5 trillion to America’s gross domestic product over 10 years.
There has been a groundswell of support for rapid action. Recently, Smith’s Vista Equity Partners, along with Boston Consulting Group and PayPal, launched the Southern Communities Initiative that, among other things, seeks to improve broadband internet access in historically underserved communities that lack access to reliable internet service.
In addition, the National Urban League just released the Lewis Latimer Plan for Digital Equity and Inclusion. Named after legendary 19th-century Black inventor Lewis Latimer — the son of slaves who helped draft the patent for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone — the plan is among the most comprehensive how-to guides ever assembled on combating digital poverty. While the league’s 200-page plan, developed in conjunction with policy experts from the team that wrote the 2010 U.S. National Broadband Plan, is the most thorough, other organizations — such as Common Sense Media, Verizon, the Benton Foundation and Civil Rights Table — have offered their own recommendations. The particulars may vary, but all call for bold action.
More than half a century ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. implored the nation to prioritize economic opportunity for people of color. Last summer’s protests, sparked by the murder of George Floyd and rampant police brutality against Black people, became the largest civil rights movement in American history partly because our nation has failed to answer that call.
If done correctly, as outlined by the Latimer Plan, this would represent the single largest investment in racial equity in modern American history. For example, if six states — Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, and Louisiana — were to use money already appropriated to increase broadband availability and adoption, it would help close the digital divide for more than half of all Black people in America. While the federal government has allocated $10 billion for COVID-related low-income broadband support, we need a permanent solution.
From our nation’s leading civil rights organizations to its largest corporations to members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, there is rare consensus that broadband must be brought to all Americans. But this gutted infrastructure proposal stalling in Congress is not the answer.
Jeremy White is a former special assistant for the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and a national diversity advocate. He is the founder and president of Restore Hope Consulting.
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