A April 2013 Congressional hearing made us think – “Why don’t we make it easy for people to follow developments in the FCC’s Lifeline program?”
When we talk about the digital divide, we need to peel back the layers. When we do, it is readily apparent that nearly three times the people who live in urban areas remain unconnected to broadband as those in rural areas. Additionally, according to Pew Research data, 34% of Black people in America do not have a home broadband connection, a disproportionately higher percentage than their white counterparts.
All it takes is a nationwide crisis to underline the most glaring equity issues our society faces. The one that has captured my attention during COVID-19 is the chronic lack of home internet access for people of color, low-income households, and rural residents. That lack of access puts schools in an especially difficult position as they expand their use of technology during the pandemic, and beyond. It's important to remember that this technology challenge has been staring us in the face for decades. It is not just a COVID-19 issue—it is a civil rights issue of the utmost importance.
The Federal Communications Commission’s top priority must be connecting all Americans to modern high-speed communications networks. Solving this problem was always a moral imperative, and COVID-19 has raised the stakes.
As Congress debates increases to the Lifeline benefit, it should also ensure that funds are directly appropriated to support any benefit increase or otherwise ensure that the Universal Service Fund funding mechanism is significantly reformed. Relying on decades-old funding approaches will only serve to undermine the goal of providing 21st-century broadband connectivity to Lifeline eligible households.
On Aug 13, 2020, House Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) led Democratic Communications Subcommittee members in writing to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai to urge the FCC to provide unlimited voice minutes and unlimited mobile data to Lifeline recipients, with an increase in the basic support amount to offset any associated incremental costs, for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.
America’s broadband providers have stepped up with the ‘K-12 Bridge to Broadband” to help meet the needs of millions of low-income American students who are unable to get on the internet so they can go to class from home. The new program will do two things the Trump Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has failed to do. First, it will identify households with students that have broadband passing their door but have chosen not to subscribe.
Getting the internet to everyone is not just about tech: It’s even more a policy question, one tied up in politics.
Our networks still don’t reach everyone, and private dollars alone won’t solve this challenge. Our country needs to close that gap, and now is the time for legislators and policymakers to act to ensure the educational and economic success of all Americans by making broadband connectivity more accessible, affordable and sustainable. Market forces and private companies can’t do it alone because of the lack of return on the significant investment necessary to reach all Americans.
Tens of millions of Americans still lack access to affordable broadband, leaving them stranded on the wrong side of the country's stubborn digital divide at one of the worst possible moments in American history. While the Covid-19 crisis is an immense tragedy, it has created an opportunity for Congress to fix this longstanding problem. Several promising proposals already exist, including one in which the federal government would provide a "broadband benefit" in the form of a monthly subsidy to ensure that essential broadband access is affordable for all.