Dr Fallon Wilson
When the pandemic forced schools, offices and healthcare providers to go online last March, it also put our country’s long-standing digital inequalities in the spotlight.
Millions of low-income Americans did not have computers, high-speed home connections, or the digital skills to use them.
Recently, a $ 3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program – which was just launched by the FCC to provide up to $ 50 per month in monthly Internet bills for those in need – promises to ‘accelerate this progress.
But incremental progress and temporary dressings are not a sufficient response to such a fundamental obstacle to equity and opportunity; as the late Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewisargued, unequal access to the Internet is “the question of civil rights of the 21st century”.
This is why Congress must now work to transform the temporary EBB initiative into a permanent broadband assistance program.
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A worrying disparity
According to the Pew Research Center,only 71% of African Americans and 65% of Hispanics have broadband at home, compared to 80% of whites.One in fouradolescents from low-income households do not have access to a computer at home, whileless than three out of five low-income families have a broadband connection at home. Even when schools reopen, children who grow up without internet access will still be left behind.
Low-income communities of color have placed their hopes in President Biden in 2020. As his administration proposes a $ 100 billion plan for universal broadband access, direct aid to the most vulnerable among us must be part of the package.
Civil rights advocates – including the National Urban League, NAACP and the Multicultural Media, Telecommunications and Internet Council, MMTC – presented a bold and direct solution to this digital equality crisis: a long-term permanent broadband benefit program funded by the federal government.
Religious leadersalso speak out in favor of the PBB proposal, stressing that full digital empowerment is a prerequisite for full civic and political empowerment.
The MMTC has partnered with national religious leaders to launch the Black Churches for Broadband Coalition, with a dual mandate of raising awareness of the recently launched EBB program – many eligible families have not learned of its existence – and mobilizing voices of the basis for a permanent broadband advantage.
For generations, the black church has been the bedrock of civil rights advocacy – a role it once again plays in promoting digital equity and empowerment.
In fact,research confirmscommunity outreach through churches and other local organizations is a critical piece of the adoption puzzle. Legislation must therefore fund these âdigital browsersâ to help unconnected families navigate FCC registration forms, teach basic digital skills and overcome language barriers.
The good news is that we have tested and proven roadmaps for building a permanent Internet grant program.
Learn more about the digital divide:âWe all screamed. “Could four women of color convince companies to fund research on” the digital divide?
Keep everyone connected
Broadband providerslow income initiatives, offering service for as little as $ 10 per month, havemillions of connected– proof that rebates and grants really help attract more families online. The FCC’s Lifeline program, which provides $ 9.25 per month to cover the costs of home phone service, offers a pre-built infrastructure to assess eligibility and streamline registration.
And programs like SNAP provide consumers with accessible payment tools that can be used as a model of broadband connectivity.
Helping struggling families directly buy Internet from home is the fastest and most efficient way to get people online. While some advocates have suggested using these dollars instead to build additional competitive broadband networks in communities that already have Internet options,research suggestsit won’t do much to boost broadband adoption.
Like the National Urban LeagueLewis Latimer Planargues that directly tackling affordability and digital literacy is the best, fastest and most straightforward way to bridge the digital divide and fully empower financially struggling consumers.
We need to level the playing field and make broadband affordable for everyone.
An infrastructure bill that ignores civil rights leaders’ call for a permanent benefit of broadband will fall short of the vision of fairness and inclusion that President Biden has presented.
Strong investments to build broadband infrastructure in unserved rural areas make sense – but this focus on rural broadband cannot exclude equal attention to the challenges of broadband adoption in urban communities of color. .
It is time for Congress to ensure that every American, regardless of neighborhood, skin color or socioeconomic status, can take advantage of the possibilities of the digital age.
We need universal broadband connectivity for everyone.
We need the permanent broadband delivery.
Dr Fallon Wilson is Vice President of Policy at the Multicultural Media, Telecommunications and Internet Council (MMTC), which heads the Black Churches for Broadband Coalition.