Digital Equity and Broadband Adoption

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Digital Beat

Digital Equity and Broadband Adoption

Testimony as Prepared for Delivery Before the

Congress of the United States

House of Representatives

Committee on Energy and Commerce

Subcommittee on Communications and Technology

Empowering and Connecting Communities through Digital Equity and Internet Adoption

(Full written testimony)

Gigi Sohn

Chairman Doyle, Ranking Member Latta, Chairman Pallone, Ranking Member Walden, members of the subcommittee, thank you for inviting me to testify on two crucial issues — digital equity and broadband adoption.

It’s indisputable that broadband Internet is an essential tool for participation in our society, our economy, and our culture. Many job applications and government services are only available online. 70% of teachers assign homework that must be submitted online. Numerous TV shows and movies are exclusively online.

Broadband Internet access has fundamentally changed the nature of commerce, education, and healthcare. It enables unprecedented flexibility for Americans to choose where they live, how they work, and how they care for their families.

However, 141 million people in the U.S. don’t have fixed home Internet at the FCC’s outdated 25 down, 3 up broadband definition. That’s nearly 43% of Americans. What’s more alarming is that home broadband adoption rates aren’t increasing: they’ve remained stable for the past 3 years. That makes this hearing even more important.

The digital divide affects every region of our country, although communities of color and low-income Americans are far more likely not to have broadband. A recent study by the Pew Research Center showed 79% of white U.S. adults have home broadband, while the same is true of only 66% of black adults and 61% of Hispanics. The study showed that 92% of Americans making $75,000 or more annually have home broadband, while only 56% making less than $30,000 do. 

The racial component of the digital divide is a by-product not only of income inequality, but of structural inequality like discriminatory housing and lending practices. This divide persists because of the high cost of broadband and computers in the U.S. Study after study shows this.

Current research suggests that low-income people can only afford to pay about $10  monthly for broadband. Anything more competes with other utility bills and the cost of food. Meeting the goal of universal connectivity and providing fixed broadband at about $10 per month requires a multi-pronged strategy - what my Benton colleague Jonathan Sallet calls an “Affordability Agenda.” It includes:

  1. Price Transparency:  Carriers should be required to submit non-promotional pricing information including equipment and other fees to the FCC, which should make that information public. The FCC or Congress should also restore the Fixed Broadband Consumer Disclosure Label. Both will help consumers make informed choices about the price, quality, and value of their broadband service.
  2. More Competition: More competition means lower broadband prices. Even under the FCC’s overly optimistic data, nearly 30% of the country has access to no more than 2 providers at 25/3 speeds, and 95% has access to no more than 2 at speeds of 100/10. Congress should prohibit states from blocking communities that wish to build their own broadband networks and also give a bidding preference to “open access networks” when allocating deployment subsidies. These networks allow any broadband provider to provide last-mile service. An open-access network in Utah gives residents of 15 cities a choice of 10 ISPs. Most Americans can’t fathom that.
  3. A Strong Lifeline Program: Congress should strengthen Lifeline and make it easier for the most vulnerable in society to access the program. It should make clear that Lifeline can support broadband service; restore the Lifeline Broadband Provider designation to bring new competition to the program; and give USAC the resources it needs to expedite the hard launch of the National Eligibility Verifier, which will make eligibility determinations automatic for many applicants. Policymakers should also consider providing an additional subsidy so Lifeline recipients can purchase fixed broadband. The $9.25 subsidy doesn’t go very far for the broadband needed to do research papers, apply for jobs and access telehealth services.
  4. Low-Cost Broadband for Federally Subsidized Networks. The FCC disburses billions of dollars annually to mobile and fixed providers to build out their networks. It should require those carriers to provide a $10 a month high-speed broadband plan to low-income Americans.
  5. Support for Access “To and Through” Community Anchor Institutions

Some community anchor institutions have adopted programs that extend learning beyond their walls. Libraries have been experimenting with mobile wireless hotspot programs, which allow people to “check-out” broadband hotspots for home use. Schools have been providing buses equipped with Wi-Fi for students to use after hours. Congress or the FCC should clarify that these programs are eligible for E-Rate funds.

Finally, Congress and the FCC should assist local communities’ digital inclusion efforts. Local advocates are doing the hard work of educating residents about low-cost broadband options, providing digital literacy and job skills training, and distributing low-cost computers. Congress should pass the Digital Equity Act of 2019, which establishes grant programs to support state and local digital equity efforts. These funds will incentivize more states and localities to develop digital inclusion plans and will provide sorely needed funds to the small nonprofits doing the hard work of connecting their communities.

Thank you.  I look forward to your questions.

Gigi B. Sohn is a Distinguished Fellow, Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy and Benton Senior Fellow and Public Advocate. She is one of the nation’s leading public advocates for open, affordable and democratic communications networks. For nearly thirty years, she has worked across the country to defend and preserve the fundamental competition and innovation policies that have made broadband Internet access more ubiquitous, competitive, affordable, open and protective of user privacy.

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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