Ten years ago, the National Broadband Plan observed that as “more aspects of daily life move online and offline alternatives disappear, the range of choices available to people without broadband narrows. Digital exclusion compounds inequities for historically marginalized groups.” In light of these trends, that plan warned “the cost of digital exclusion is large and growing.” Unfortunately, only modest efforts to address those costs have been expended in the last decade. Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates a shift to “remote everything,” the costs of exclusion have grown even larger.
What constitutes a lifeline in 2021? Is it a phone? A smartphone? A fixed-location broadband connection? Or some combination of all these services?
Policymakers and other stakeholders are becoming more aware of the hazards of assuming everyone has online access. Many are interested in understanding the places where online access may be lower than the norm and the population groups that may have limited or no access to the internet. Recent work I have done sheds light on some of these issues.
On March 4, we got a tad bit more information about the timeline of the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program—at least for the companies that are interested in providing the discounted broadband services. Broadband internet access service providers that have previously participated in federal assistance programs (these companies are known in wonkspeak as eligible telecommunications carriers or ETCs), can begin to let USAC know if they will participate in the Emergency Broadband Benefit Progr
In its efforts to help people deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress created the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program in late 2020. The Federal Communications Commission will run the program, starting it in Spring 2021. The program offers discounts off of people's monthly internet access bills to help connect households that find it hard to afford broadband service. Households can also get discounts on a laptop, desktop, or tablet computer. Broadband providers will receive up to $50/month for providing service to low-income households ($75/month if the household is on Tribal Land).
In order to achieve the goal of universal broadband for everyone in Illinois, broadband must be available and affordable. However, home broadband service is out of reach for many low-income households in Illinois that are unable to afford subscriptions. Therefore, efforts to promote universal broadband should include programs that offer access to affordable broadband service, as well as access to low-cost digital devices and digital literacy training, which have been highlighted as necessary to promote digital inclusion and meaningful broadband adoption.
With great drama, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 became law on December 27, 2021. The $2.3 trillion COVID relief and government spending bill extended unemployment benefits and ensured the government can keep running. The $900 billion COVID relief provision includes over $7 billion to help improve connectivity in the U.S.
At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the Federal Communications Commission pushed internet service providers to promise they wouldn't penalize customers who struggled to pay their internet bills when they needed connectivity the most. More than 800 companies signed onto the Keep Americans Connected pledge, a commitment to not disconnect customers who were behind on their bills or charge late-payment fees that drew effusive praise from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.
COVID-19 has turned the floodlights on digital inequality in rural, tribal, and urban communities across the United States.