A point often lost when we talk about the digital divide is what happens when we actually bridge the divide. Too often, we declare mission accomplished when we’ve connected a home that has been forever without, but I challenge you to take a more nuanced view. We should only claim victory when a consumer is meaningfully using their connectivity to take advantage of the economic, educational, and health care opportunities it affords....
One of our primary goals at the Federal Communications Commission is to be good stewards of ratepayer dollars. That means moving away from the past practice of using our high-cost program to fund multiple networks in the same geographic area. We should not support a company that is serving an area where another provider is providing quality service without a subsidy. That is fundamentally inconsistent with protecting consumers and it does not enable the market to work as intended.
In this case study, we argue that barriers to broadband access, one aspect of the digital divide for low income communities of color, stem from a myriad of factors including deregulation of the telecommunications industry and a history of segregation of and disinvestment in neighborhoods of color. Specifically:
The deregulation of the telecommunications sector in the 1990s allowed sweeping consolidation of the industry and created a broadband market with significantly less competition between firms, steeper prices, and slower speeds compared to other industrialized nations.
Regulators do not hold internet service providers (ISPs) accountable to universal build out requirements, which the government enacted in exchange for granting monopolies in the market. This monopolized and deregulated environment has allowed ISPs to upgrade digital infrastructure in the most profitable, high-income areas first. The persistence of de facto racial segregation of neighborhoods means such investments (and lack thereof) result in digital redlining of a disproportionate number of neighborhoods of color and rural areas of all races.
While broadband internet access has increased over time, there remains a digital divide in access to and adoption of high-speed internet. Closing this gap must be a priority, and will take a substantial federal investment to do. There are still 34 million residents that do not have at least one broadband provider in their community. While nearly all of Connecticut has access to high-speed internet, more than one third of Mississippi’s residents lack access. At local levels, the disparities get larger. In more than 200 counties, no one has access to broadband internet. Congress must prioritize rural broadband expansion in any national comprehensive infrastructure plan debated in the 115th Congress.
Further, Congress needs to work on closing the gap in at-home internet usage. All Americans can benefit from having the internet in their homes, giving them better access to educational, health, and career-related resources. Bridging this gap will require improving competition to bring consumer costs down and expanding efforts to subsidize home broadband subscriptions.
With the growing use of the Internet for information, education, job hunting, and other activities, its economic value increases. The incidence of in-home Internet subscriptions, however, varies across households, and Native American households are less likely than other American households to subscribe to Internet services. The lack of universality has, potentially, enormous consequences for households not subscribing to the Internet. Using descriptive statistics and logistic regressions we find that the growth of U.S. Internet subscriptions may have peaked and exhibited a small decline between 2012 and 2015; technology adoption has reached the third stage of the S-curve. Internet adoption in Native American households, however, may not have fully reached into the third stage. While rural-urban location is a small factor for non-Native American households, it remains a major factor for Native American households.
In “Signs of digital distress: Mapping broadband access and subscription in American neighborhoods,” the authors also examine broadband subscription, and find that in 2015, nearly a quarter of Americans lived in “low subscription neighborhoods,” where fewer than 40 percent of households subscribed to broadband (here defined per FCC data as 10Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload), and which contain nearly 18 million children.
Top 5 Performers: 1) Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville (FL) 2) Honolulu (HI), 3) Bridgeport-Stamford-Norwalk (CT), 4) New YOrk, Newark-Jersey City (NY,NJ,PA), 5) Boston-Cambridge-Newton (MA,NH)
Bottom 5 Performers: 1) Jackson (MI), 2) Augusta-Richmond County (GA, SC), 3) Birmingham-Hoover (AL), 4) Tulsa (OK), 5) Fresno (CA).
Altice USA said “Economy Internet,” an uncapped broadband service for low-income households, is now available across its Optimum (former Cablevision Systems) and Suddenlink footprints.
The service, for eligible families and senior citizens, offers 30 Mbps (downstream) and integrated in-home Wi-Fi for $14.99 per month. Altice USA launched Economy Internet is select areas of the New York region in 2016, and was linked to a commitment to introduce a low income broadband option throughout the former Cablevision service territory.
The survey effort recontacted 429 past participants of the Connect Your Community project that had participated in a 2012 impact survey and produced findings that show the long-term and continuing impact of high-touch digital inclusion efforts 5 years after project completion. Highlights:
76 percent of all respondents maintained their home internet subscription.
65 percent of those without a home internet connection say cost is the primary reason for them not maintaining their service. 18 percent say it is their lack of a computer.
Only 10 percent of respondents report a lack of interest or need for home internet, preferring to rely on community resources.
43 percent of connected respondents use patient health record (PHRs) portals to manage their health online.
69 percent of connected and 60 percent of unconnected respondents report that they use a computer for their job.
82 percent report that their participation in the Connect Your Community project resulted in a positive workforce-related impact.
Half of the population (50.47 percent) said that they shared what they learned in the CYC project with others outside of the community centers; in their own personal networks.
Only 17 percent of respondents were aware of data caps on their service. Of these, 51 percent report having an unlimited internet plan, while the rest report data caps as low as 20gb or less per month
The Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee held a hearing Sept 14 titled, "FCC’s Lifeline Program: A Case Study of Government Waste and Mismanagement". Committee members criticized the subsidy program for phone and Internet access that was the subject of a recent watchdog report detailing cases of fraud and abuse. Chairman Ron Johnson (R-WI) said at a hearing that there “probably” needs to be a complete overhaul of the Lifeline program. “We need to completely rethink how we distribute that subsidy,” Chairman Johnson said.
Sen Claire McCaskill (D-MO) called on the Federal Communications Commission to crack down on the companies that she says are defrauding the program. “Why are we providing these companies with this massive opportunity for fraud?” Sen McCaskill said. Both Sens McCaskill and Johnson suggested diverting funds from Lifeline towards programs focused on expanding rural internet access.
Signs of digital distress: Mapping Broadband Availability and Subscription in American Neighborhoods
The internet is now a fundamental component of the American economy, creating new ways to educate, employ, bring services to, and entertain every person. Broadband, especially wireline broadband in American homes, is the essential infrastructure for unlocking the internet’s economic benefits. However, broadband infrastructure is far from ubiquitous, both in terms of where it operates and who subscribes to it, and those deficits are not shared evenly across the country. As such, policymakers must understand how the national digital divide varies depending on the place.
The following research assesses both components of the digital divide, and for the first time studies them in every American metropolitan area and neighborhood. Identifying local gaps—and not just in where telecommunications infrastructure goes, but also who subscribes to it—more comprehensively portrays the extent of digital disconnect.
[Commentary] Promoting universal access to modern communication services and the internet, especially for low-income and disadvantaged Americans, is a noble cause and a pragmatic objective worthy of government support, but the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Lifeline program is not an effective or efficient means of achieving these goals. We need a better approach to open the doors of digital opportunity to low-income and disadvantaged Americans. Here are four principles for replacing the program with a more effective approach to advancing digital opportunity:
First, federal and state governments should work to reduce barriers to broadband deployment and adoption, and to the efficient functioning of the broadband marketplace, so as to lower prices and increase the availability of affordable broadband services.
Second, regardless of whether Lifeline is replaced or reformed, support should be targeted to those who do not already have service.
Third, the replacement for Lifeline should reflect an assessment of who needs help and of what sort.
Fourth, and finally, it is time to consider a new delivery mechanism, one that involves neither the federal regulatory agency which has so grossly mismanaged the Lifeline program nor the telephone companies that have profited so handsomely from that mismanagement.
[Jeffrey Eisenach was on the Trump FCC Transition team, and is a managing director at NERA Economic Consulting.]