Many Americans still don’t have internet access — Congress should help

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The pandemic has not only given rise to unprecedented challenges for our nation, but it has also widened long-existing inequities like the digital divide — the term used to refer to the fact that many people across the country lack access to affordable broadband due to a cycle of profit-driven discrimination.

Home broadband is a necessity for all, regardless of race, income or geography — especially as we’re being asked to stay at home whenever possible to stop the spread of the virus. Yet according to a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) December 2018 Internet Access Services report, 44 million households do not even have a standard broadband connection, either because they do not have access or can’t afford it. This crisis is reaching a breaking point this fall as many schools hold all classes online.

Congress cannot stand idly by while millions of people across the country are unable to connect with loved ones, work from home, engage in distance learning, take advantage of telehealth or otherwise fully participate in society because they lack affordable broadband access. Now, more than ever before, is the time to take the necessary steps toward universal, affordable broadband service. 

For communities of color, home broadband continues to lag behind the rest of the country. According to a recent Pew report, 34 percent of Black households and 39 percent of Latinx households do not have a wired broadband connection. The Census Bureau recently found that Native Americans are the least connected population with 33 percent lacking a broadband subscription and 47 percent of those living on tribal lands lacking broadband availability.

Availability isn’t the only thing that matters — affordability is also essential. Even where broadband connections are available, use and adoption levels remain low for communities of color. According to the most recent 2019 census data, 23 percent of people in the U.S. do not have a wired broadband connection. For households earning less than $20,000 per year, it’s more than 35 percent.

As unemployment rates hover at nearly 8 percent, the high price of broadband will force many families to make tough choices. People in service jobs, manufacturing and construction, representing more than one-third of the U.S. labor force — about 53 million people — are getting hit the hardest.

All communities need affordable access to broadband networks to help us recover from this economic disaster.

Last month, the House of Representatives passed an infrastructure bill, the Moving Forward Act, containing strong provisions to expand broadband access that create and protect good jobs across the country. The legislation not only provides millions of families with an affordable internet connection, but it ensures that the very workers who build and maintain those networks have access to the internet themselves and are able to exercise their collective bargaining rights.

In the short-term, the bill would not only address the affordability issue, but it would help millions of families and friends stay connected, enable working and learning from home and even receive health care virtually. In the long-term, it would encourage broadband deployment, create more competition to increase broadband speeds and decrease prices, and help close the digital divide. 

It’s time for the Senate to step up and ensure that the 44 million households that lack even a standard connection get the essential service they need. If they do not act, we must hold them accountable. And we must make sure that the Moving Forward Act becomes the new baseline for expanding broadband access across the country.

The digital divide isn’t new, but the pandemic makes it an emergency. People’s livelihoods and their children’s education should not be held hostage by a broadband provider. Congress must act to transform our nation by ensuring affordable, high-speed broadband access for all, regardless of race, income or geography. 

Chris Shelton is the president of the Communications Workers of America. Angela Siefer is the executive director of The National Digital Inclusion Alliance, which advocates for the expansion of broadband access. 

Tags Broadband access Digital divide FCCracial disparity high-speed Internet Internet access internet connection low-income communities Telehealth

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