Broadband Equity: Addressing Disparities in Access and Affordability

The House Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Communications and Technology held a hearing on the disparities that exist in accessing affordable, reliable high-speed internet in the US. The panel heard from the National Urban League's Joi Chaney, Public Knowledge President Chris Lewis, Francella Ochillo of Next Century Cities, and George Ford, the chief economist at the Phoenix Center. As you are probably aware, not all households in the United States can subscribe to home internet service, sometimes due to non-existent or inadequate infrastructure and other times due to the inability to afford the cost of service. While a higher share of rural households lacks a broadband subscription compared to the share of urban households, by total numbers, three times as many non-subscribing households are located in non-rural areas. And while 80 percent of White adults report having home broadband, this is true of only 71 percent of Black adults and 65 percent of Hispanic adults. The hearing was aimed at examing three issues related to universal broadband use: access to high-speed networks, affordable service, and digital literacy and skills. 

In opening remarks, full committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) said, "We're here today to talk about equity in broadband, and the very real disparities that exist in broadband access and affordability.... We are here to discuss how best to address these inequities, and it is not as simple as ensuring that broadband networks are built to these communities. That is a critical first step, but affordability is a major barrier to broadband adoption for low-income communities."

On the minority side, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-OR) celebrated the U.S. broadband industry's investments and the voluntary Keep Americans Connected pledge to not disconnect anyone due to their inability to pay during the early months of the COVID emergency. However, she criticized recent proposals from President Joe Biden and other Democrats to increase competition in local broadband markets and ensure that broadband service is affordable. “We all want to close the digital divide, but the only way to truly achieve this is to lead with solutions that drive results—not more government centralized power."

Joi Chaney spoke about the National Urban League's Lewis Latimer Plan for Digital Equity and Inclusion and its four "big, but achievable" goals: 1) Deploying networks everywhere. 2) Getting everyone connected. 3) Using the networks to improve how we deliver essential services, in particular in workforce development, health care, and education. 4) Creating new economic opportunities to participate in the growth of the digital economy.

Chris Lewis testified about how Congress can make sure that everyone gets connected to affordable, reliable, high-speed internet. He stressed that broadband is an essential utility that must be affordable for all. To make service affordable, Public Knowledge recommends that Congress: 1) Direct the Federal Communications Commission to collect data about broadband prices, 2) Foster a competitive broadband marketplace, 3) Create a long-term broadband subsidy for low-income people (this point was emphasized in a letter to the subcommittee from The Leadership Conference on Civil nd Human Rights), and 4) Mandate that broadband providers offer low-cost service options. Lewis also urged Congress to ensure that everyone has access to connected devices and digital literacy skills. He highlighted the problem of digital redlining and requested that Congress ask the FCC to conduct a study to better understand the scope of the problem and see how widespread digital redlining is. "Once we know," Lewis said, "the FCC should take whatever remedial steps are needed to ensure providers offer everyone in their service area comparable affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband." 

"Achieving universal broadband connectivity has become a priority for local governments nationwide just as it should be for Congress," said Francella Ochillo. She stressed that broadband is an indispensable tool for local officials working to fight poverty, create jobs, recover from disaster, boost civic engagement, or achieve more equitable outcomes for residents. She also highlighted the problem of redlining but noted that it is an urban and rural issue. Not surprisingly, she also stressed that comprehensive broadband access and affordability strategies require municipal, cooperative, mesh and other nontraditional networks. "Efforts to get broadband into unserved and underserved communities is all for naught if residents do not have the digital skills to benefit from broadband access and contribute to a digital economy" she noted. 

George Ford seemingly downplayed the problem of achieving universal broadband, saying that 90-plus percent of Americans now have access to 25/3 Mbps broadband Internet service and nearly all households have access to much better connections speeds, with basic services now in the 100-to-200 Mbps range (80% of households have access to gigabit service, he said. In addition, he noted 86% of Americans lived in households that have wired high-speed Internet services in the home and almost all broadband providers offer a capable broadband connection for $10-to-$20 per month for qualifying low-income consumers. "That said, there is room for improvement at the margin," Ford said. "An overarching goal should be to do no damage to the 90% to get to the 10%."

The National Digitial Inclusion Alliance, a national coalition of digital inclusion practitioners and advocates, offered the subcommittee eight recommendations to address the digital divide:

  1. Allocate funding for state and local digital equity planning and implementation
  2. Allocate funding for community-based digital equity planning
  3. Establish an Office of Digital Equity in the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration
  4. Extend the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program and address low-income affordability through a permanent benefit
  5. Invest in broadband networks built to address affordability
  6. Create a National Digital Inclusion Corps
  7. Ensure broadband cost data transparency
  8. Direct funding derived from spectrum auctions proceeds to establish an independent fund dedicated to funding digital equity initiatives

Broadband Equity: Addressing Disparities in Access and Affordability Opening Remarks (Chairman Pallone)