A First for Digital Equity and Broadband Adoption

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, January 31, 2020

Weekly Digest

A First for Digital Equity and Broadband Adoption

 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of January 27-31, 2020

Kevin Taglang

On Wednesday, January 29, the House Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a hearing entitled Empowering and Connecting Communities Through Digital Equity and Internet Adoption. To our recollection, it was the first Congressional hearing exploring digital equity and broadband adoption. 

Digital equity, if you are new to the term, is defined by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance as a condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy, and economy. Although many of us may take ubiquitous internet access for granted, at least 141 million people in the United States do not subscribe to fixed home Internet at the Federal Communications Commission’s broadband benchmark -- 25 Megabits per second download and 3 Megabits per second up (what policy wonks commonly refer to as 25/3 Mbps).

The part of this divide that has garnered the most attention of late is those geographical areas (mostly rural) where broadband networks simply have yet to be deployed. But the bigger obstacles are that for too many people, a network is available but unattainable because the cost of service is too high, the price of internet-capable devices is too steep an investment, and/or they lack the skills needed to connect to and navigate the internet. More than half of American adults are “relatively hesitant” when it comes to using broadband technology. Digital equity recognizes the truly universal ambitions of broadband adoption.

"Digital equity is a commitment for the least of us." -- Joshua Edmonds, Detroit's Director of Digital Inclusion

Opening the hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D-PA) said, "It is my hope that we can have a productive discussion about the challenges faced by all of our communities and come to some consensus on solutions that can help close the digital divide."

But Washington is where bipartisan dreams go to die these days. Subcommittee Ranking Member Bob Latta (R-OH), in his opening remarks, applauded the proliferation of Wi-Fi and the blessings of light-touch regulation (a phrase net neutrality observers are very familiar with). Rep. Latta urged Congress not to try to pass legislation that would be "one size fits all." Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), the ranking member of the full committee, asked the subcommittee to "not put the cart before the horse." He added that "without first addressing the lack of broadband availability, any Federal resources put forward for broadband adoption could further enlarge the digital divide if not done carefully."

With these battle lines drawn, the subcommittee heard from five expert witnesses.

National Digital Inclusion Alliance Executive Director Angela Siefer aimed to dispel three myths:

  1. The digital divide would be bridged if we filled the broadband infrastructure gaps in rural areas. 
  2. 5G will solve the digital divide.
  3. Non-subscribers just need to be convinced about the value of using the internet. 

Joshua Edmonds

"Digital equity is a commitment for the least of us," said Detroit's Director of Digital Inclusion, Joshua Edmonds. "It requires an honest assessment of what diverse populations need to achieve meaningful participation in a digital society. For some communities, that involves building infrastructure, other communities require additional support to ensure that residents can subscribe to reliable, affordable broadband plans. But at the core of any digital equity initiative is understanding the plight of older adults, veterans, low-income families, disabled residents, small business owners, and unemployed Americans all seeking to engage in a digital society."

American Enterprise Institute Visiting Scholar Roslyn Layton testified that "policy meant merely to promote low-cost solutions does not address individual needs." Her recommendations included reforming the Universal Service Fund (including "revolutionary, not evolutionary change" for the FCC's Lifeline program), updating telecommunications laws "to reflect the dynamic competition in the marketplace and modernize obsolete regulatory structures," and speeding additional wireless frequencies for private sector use.

Gigi Sohn

Representing both Georgetown University's Institute for Technology Law & Policy and the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, Gigi Sohn stressed that the success stories of broadband are far from equally distributed as nearly 43% of the American population do not have broadband internet access service in the home. Communities of color and low-income Americans are more likely to be on the wrong side of the digital divide. She urged an Affordability Agenda, a multi-pronged strategy to ensure that everyone in the U.S. can afford a home broadband connection. The strategy, outlined in Benton's Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s, includes:

  1. Spurring competition,
  2. Strengthening the FCC's Lifeline program,
  3. Providing assistance to broadband providers' low-income programs,
  4. Requiring affordable tiers of broadband service when public funds support broadband network deployment,
  5. Educating and protecting consumers,
  6. Supporting programs that make low-cost computing devices available, and
  7. Proving internet access via community anchor institutions.

North Carolina's approach to the digital divide was offered by Jeff Sural, the Director of the Broadband Infrastructure Office within the North Carolina Department of Information Technology. He said that "we talk about broadband as two sides of the same coin: the access side—the access to the pipes and wires, and the adoption side—whether a household subscribes to the service. A household or a community needs both sides of the metaphorical coin to realize the value that broadband promises." He suggested that:

  • Federal, state, and local leaders must design and implement concerted efforts to address the four primary barriers to adoption: lack of availability, cost, relevance, and digital literacy.
  • Governments can play an important role by convening stakeholders and educating the public.
  • We should continue to work on policies that incentivize broadband competition. But, where market forces are not working, successful evidence-based solutions include grants, subsidies, tax credits, and partnerships.

In addition to the testimony delivered at the hearing, local leaders wrote to Congress about digital equity. The City of Seattle said:

  • Closing the digital divide is a critical issue for all Americans, regardless of political party or whether they live in rural, suburban, and urban communities.
  • It’s smart business for government to invest in digital equity as we move services online.
  • Even in “high-tech cities” there are significant gaps and barriers to digital equity.
  • Fulfilling our potential as a nation online requires support from the entire community, and investments in digital equity help to build these partnerships.
  • Digital equity programs are a critical part of our education and workforce pipeline.
  • Tech training is just as important for non-technical workers, helping increase skills and wages for other types of employment.
  • Specific investments in digital equity also leverage other federal, state, and local programs.

The City of Chattanooga, Tenessee, shared its success in transforming itself from "the dirtiest city in America" to "Gig City." Chattanooga invests in not just broadband infrastructure but digital equity and inclusion as well. Mayor Andy Berke wrote, "Our city and county governments both have worked to support efforts and organizations doing the vital, on-the-ground work of connecting residents to 21st century opportunity. From charging EPB with providing a reduced-cost, high-speed home internet plan for low-income families with students in our schools to directly investing in the digital inclusion efforts of non-profit partners through our City's budgeting process, equity remains at the very core of our community's strategy." 

A subtext for the day's discussion was legislation, introduced in the House by Subcommittee Member Jerry McNerney (D-CA), which would require the Department of Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration to establish a State Digital Equity Capacity Grant Program. Specifically, the Digital Equity Act (H.R. 4486 -- and S. 1167 in the Senate) would establish grant programs for (1) promoting digital equity, (2) supporting digital inclusion activities, and (3) building capacity for state-led efforts to increase adoption of broadband by their residents.

With the first broadband adoption hearing now completed, look for legislation like H.R. 4486 to be part of future debates on how best to close the digital divide. For updates, follow the news through Benton's Headlines

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

Feb 5 -- Kickstarting the Digital Heartland (New America)

Feb 10 -- How to Bridge the Broadband Gap: A Conversation with State Leaders (Pew Charitable Trusts)

Feb 13 -- Consumer Advisory Committee Meeting (FCC)

Feb 18 -- Everything is better with better broadband (Berkman Klein Center)

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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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
727 Chicago Avenue
Evanston, IL 60202
headlines AT benton DOT org

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