We need to close the digital divide in Pa.’s communities of color | Andrea Custis

(Capital-Star file)

By Andrea Custis

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have a proposed a $100 billion broadband infrastructure package as a cornerstone of their promise to “build back better.”

Andrea Custis (Twitter avatar)

The proposal’s emphasis on expanding broadband access in rural areas is urgently necessary – but also entirely insufficient. Infrastructure alone isn’t going to close the massive broadband adoption gap in low-income communities of color.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s shift to remote schooling, telework, and telemedicine makes high-speed internet connection more important than ever. Only 71 percent of Black adults and 65 percent of Hispanic adults have home broadband — compared to 80 percent of white adults.

The broadband infrastructure in Philly is top shelf. 99.2 percent of our residents have high-speed broadband service available – and 95 percent have a choice between multiple providers.  Speeds continue to go up each year, while the prices for nearly all broadband tiers have remained flat or decreased in recent years.

The problem here in Philly is one of adoption. Too many of our brothers and sisters are not connecting to the broadband lines at their doorstep.

Part of this challenge – but certainly not all of it — is affordability. Low-income families can connect for around $10 per month through broadband providers’ low-cost programs, and unconnected students in Philadelphia public schools have been offered free home broadband through the city’s landmark Philadelphia ConnectED public-private partnership.

But for some low-income folks, even discounted broadband can be too much for them when they are stretching every cent.

Congress took a big step by passing the Emergency Broadband Benefit, offering low-income families $50 a month to help stay connected during the pandemic.  Leading civil rights organizations – including the National Urban League, the NAACP, and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance – have called on the Biden Administration to make this benefit permanent.

A Permanent Broadband Benefit would rightfully place broadband access in the same category as food, healthcare, and education – things that all Americans count on for survival and basic opportunity.

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But some inside the White House are resisting the Permanent Broadband Benefit – and their broadband plan doesn’t really offer much at all to address on the broadband adoption crisis in communities of color.

Instead, the first draft of principles offered by the White House would divert funds to more expensive yet less equitable approaches – for example, subsidizing new, duplicative broadband networks in areas that already have high-speed internet!

Research by John Horrigan, one of the country’s leading digital divide researchers, shows that building additional networks in communities that already have them does little to get poor folks connected to broadband. The idea that we can simply build our way out of the digital divide with more infrastructure is objectively wrong – and a bit out of touch.

Congress and the Administration should instead prioritize those dollars to directly help Black and Brown families to get – and stay – online.

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A robust broadband subsidy won’t, on its own, close the digital divide; affordability is only one of a complex set of factors impeding adoption in communities of color.  32 million U.S. adults lack basic digital literacy skills.  60% of unconnected adults say the biggest reason they’re not online is simply because they don’t want to be, or don’t see the need.  In an era where internet access is increasingly the on-ramp to economic and educational opportunity, our community needs a full-scale campaign to change these perceptions and equip everyone to thrive in the digital future.

This is all the more reason that precious federal funds shouldn’t be wasted on overbuilding duplicative networks where world-class infrastructure already exists, and instead should go to efforts that stand a better chance of closing the digital divide.

The National Urban League recently released a comprehensive digital equity agenda – the Lewis Latimer Plan for Digital Equity & Inclusion.  The plan calls for a national corps of Digital Navigators to deliver hands-on mentorship in our communities to help get everyone hooked up to broadband as a way of life. Together with a Permanent Broadband Benefit, the Digital Navigators initiative would give the President’s broadband plan much sharper focus on the vitally important and complementary goals of universal access and universal adoption.

Closing the digital divide will ensure that black and brown people across the country are fully enfranchised online – able to do business, stay in touch with one another, and learn the skills they need for future careers. That’s why the Biden Administration should throw its full weight behind efforts to truly close the digital divide in communities of color and shelve competing proposals that would divert critical funding to build more digital “bridges to nowhere.”

Andrea Custis is the president and CEO of Urban League of Philadelphia. Her work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.