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Digital needs funding for its ‘social justice’ movement moment

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
President Biden speaks at United Performance Metals in Hamilton, Ohio, on May 6, 2022. The Biden administration announced that 20 internet companies have agreed to provide discounted service to low-income Americans, a program that could effectively make tens of millions of households eligible for free service through an already existing federal subsidy.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed how broadband connectivity, and the devices and skills needed to use it, have become as essential to daily survival as food, clothing, and shelter. It’s difficult to access online public or commercial services without a laptop with enough bandwidth or a smartphone with an adequate cellular service plan, and many Americans have neither of these things.

Before the pandemic, at least 21 million Americans lacked broadband connectivity. Though that was 6 percent of the U.S. population, Pew researchers found troubling patterns in that percentage who weren’t connected: 30 percent of them living in rural America, 40 percent of our schools, and 60 percent of our non-urban health care facilities.

In 2022, broadband connectivity remains a challenge, especially for many living in federally supported housing, tribal communities or rural areas, as well as those attending or working in minority-serving colleges and universities.

Digital disparities exist even in tech hubs such as Austin, Texas, a city with a 20-year history supporting digital inclusion efforts directly linked to race-based or socioeconomic inequality. What hampers expanding connectivity in many cities, including Austin, are state laws that block municipalities from offering broadband when at least one commercial internet service (ISP) provider already serves an area. This leaves consumers with few acceptable marketplace choices. Consumer Reports recently released a study confirming this.

Digital inclusion and equity challenges such as these will likely not go away until a large number of people demand change in the marketplace — and in policymaking — to make essential information and communication technologies not only available, affordable and usable, but also safe.

At October’s sixth annual national Digital Inclusion Week, organizers reported a movement-making moment that might finally alter America’s decades-long digital divide problem: uneven access to or use of information and communication technologies necessary for inclusion in today’s increasingly digital society.

Also encouraging is that the federal government is investing big money in digital inclusion. In May, President Biden announced his “Internet for All” program to provide $65 billion for connecting anyone in America who wants an affordable, reliable high-speed connection to the internet.  

Yet despite this good news, governmental largesse is typically short-lived, depending on which party controls the White House. Dating back to the 1990s, governmental investment to alleviate the digital divide has been most robust during Democratic administrations. The Clinton administration championed efforts to increase digital opportunity in 2000. President Obama focused on Closing the Digital Divide and Connecting America, and communities across the country are moving to take advantage of this funding.

Philanthropic investments also have been strong. A variety of funders are supporting at least three key national organizations that are conducting research, building awareness about digital inclusion and equity, connecting digital inclusion advocates across the country, and finding ways to invest in digital inclusion programs, coalitions and advocacy networks.

Among the largest of these is Data & Society, a nonprofit research organization with annual revenue of around $6 million. The National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy organization, reports annual revenue of over $1.5 million, and Connected Nation, a nonprofit direct services organization focusing on broadband issues, has around $4 million to $5 million in revenue. In complementary ways, these organizations and many others work to increase access to, adoption of, and the ability to use high-speed internet access.

What seems to be lacking is support for a visible social movement that complements these types of education, advocacy and networking efforts. Social movement funding is now needed to leverage this “movement moment.” The work involves building, mobilizing and sustaining community-led efforts that go beyond charitable programs such as distributing laptops to schools or providing necessary financial support for the costs of broadband.

One way to amplify this thinking is to draw on experts with know-how about funding social movements. Similar to what the Open Philanthropy and the Ayni Institute describe about ways to support a social movement, the New World Foundation identified four stages in a movement-building cycle.

The first is to build infrastructure for the social movement; then build the movement’s identity and intention. That’s followed by leveraging the movement’s moment, and finally, supporting the movement’s expansion or its decision to discontinue once its goals are achieved. Examples of funders with this expertise include the Media Democracy Fund, Justice Funders, and Funders for Justice.

Billions of dollars have been committed to digital inclusion throughout the United States, yet these equity efforts are not sustainable unless a durable social movement emerges. Some funders are exploring this, but they need partners. Supporting those living and working closest to the challenges of digital inclusion requires funding that advances change, not just marketplace fixes or charity. With GivingTuesday in mind, perhaps it is time to amplify the conversation about digital inclusion’s movement moment.

Becky Lentz, PhD, is an adjunct associate professor with the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service in the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and a former Ford Foundation program officer who led the creation of the Media Justice Fund. She is a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.

Tags Biden Broadband access digital inclusion Equity internet for all Obama

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