To build lasting digital equity, look to communities
The South Bronx and rural Sullivan County, New York have little in common. But when it comes to digital access, they symbolize communities that have been left behind by big telecom companies motivated more by increasing shareholder profits than promoting community well-being.
These rural and urban communities have experienced a form of “digital redlining” yet they both have found ways to overcome it — up to a degree.
Take Hunts Point in the South Bronx, where a local community development corporation called THE POINT recruited young people to build their own free wireless Wi-Fi network to connect learners and residents. Hunts Point Free WiFi is managed by people who live here and supported by local businesses. To a community built on a vulnerable peninsula hit hard by COVID-19, connectivity is more than just hooking up to the internet. It’s about building self-reliance, generating wealth and sustaining a platform to build a community-driven vision of the future.
Rural Sullivan County is partnering with libraries to build towers and antennas so everyone can access high-speed wireless internet. This will not only expand broadband access to residents but could generate revenue by leasing tower and rooftop space to other technology providers. The public-private partners see this as more than connectivity. It’s about building economic independence. Libraries and municipalities manage buildings with valuable rooftop real estate that can help support recovery efforts.
Local projects like these and scores of others around the country stand out because they are driven by residents maximizing their own creativity, imagination and energy to do more than just provide internet service. They are cultivating relationships to solve their own problems and more importantly promote community well-being. In the process, they are bridging the digital divide.
That’s why any efforts to close the national digital divide must include local providers like these.
As Congress and the Biden-Harris administration consider a bold infrastructure funding package that could make broadband more accessible and affordable, they should support these local efforts. In fact, the impetus to funding novel and community-grounded solutions to the digital divide has never been more important: digital inequities are tied to other deep-rooted structural barriers that limit fair and just opportunities for health, wealth and advancement. Without internet access, you can’t even register for a COVID vaccine.
The federal government has taken important recent steps to make a difference. December’s federal stimulus package included $3.2 billion in emergency broadband relief to subsidize discounts on internet services for low-income families. The American Rescue Plan includes nearly $15 billion in broadband aid for students and state and local funding for broadband infrastructure projects.
But as important is how those funds are dispersed. Lawmakers and federal, state and local agencies will set rules for allocating these funds. Those should target non-traditional broadband projects led by local communities like Hunts Point and Sullivan County. A recent survey showed that state and local leaders have the highest confidence in local internet service providers like these to use federal funds to close the digital divide.
This would be a game changer. Up until now, most public broadband investment has favored telecommunications incumbents. Despite pumping billions of dollars into closing the digital gap over a decade, many broadband projects led by these telecom giants have consistently overpromised and under delivered and many have utterly failed to expand access. This has left both rural and urban communities unconnected and deepened inequities illuminated and exacerbated by the pandemic.
Lawmakers are starting to heed calls for equity and community-centered reforms in the sector. The federal stimulus law will loosen rules on E-rate, the federal Universal Service program that subsidizes connectivity at schools and libraries, lifting restrictions that have kept schools and libraries from expanding their Wi-Fi systems to surrounding communities.
E-Rate reform and subsidized low-cost plans are critical to building community-grounded broadband ecosystems but they are insufficient. The FCC, federal lawmakers and state and municipal governments must listen to the people whose vision and values make projects happen in their communities.
If we are to achieve digital equity and close the divide, we must let these local providers in and fund them as they develop partnerships and learn with industry players and local governments.
The pandemic has revealed how vital connectivity is to all aspects of our lives. As FCC Acting Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel notes, “Broadband is no longer nice-to-have. It’s need to have. For everyone, everywhere.”
Let’s take the lessons and opportunity of this crisis to put those words into action and tap into the ingenuity of these local communities so we can build the infrastructure of equity from the ground up.
Greta Byrum is director of Policy for Community Tech NY and leads Digital Equity initiatives for The New School for Social Research.