get affordable, Reliable high-speed internet is a civil right. For those still on the wrong side of the digital divide, economic, educational and civic engagement opportunities are increasingly out of reach. The consequences of not being connected are bigger than households staying offline; it has ripple effects across the country, especially as it relates to our economic future.
Yet disproportionately black, Latino, Indigenous, low-income and rural communities remain offline in an age where many aspects of our lives depend on high-speed internet connections. There has been a lack of previous efforts to outreach and focus these communities, and policies that focus on equity in addressing the digital divide exclude marginalized communities from the benefits of broadband.
For example, Lifeline is the only federal program to keep low-income households connected to vital voice and broadband services until 2021. However, despite the much higher price of the connection, it only offers a modest subsidy of $9.25. In 2019, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established the $20.4 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) to help connect unserved and underserved communities in rural America. Unfortunately, despite its best efforts, the agency has allocated substantial funds to deploy networks based on inaccurate broadband maps, and has no mandate to ensure that low-income households in these areas, including communities of color, once provided service is affordable.
Failure to promote equitable broadband policies hinders progress and hinders America’s ability to compete globally. We have an opportunity to help bridge the digital divide through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), an investment in broadband with the bulk of the funding allocated to the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program administered by the U.S. government ( BEAD) National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). All 56 states and territories submitted expressions of interest for the BEAD scheme by today’s deadline. This demonstrates the meaningful commitment to connecting communities across the country to broadband. BEAD has prioritized funding for deployment of broadband in unserved and underserved areas, which will be determined when the FCC releases an updated map in the fall to identify where broadband is and isn’t available. Remaining BEAD funds can be used for broadband adoption, workforce development and other digital equity initiatives. We must learn from past failures and address all aspects of the digital divide, including usability, adoption and access to economic opportunity, through an equity lens.
First, countries urgently need to address broadband adoption alongside broadband access. During the Covid-19 public health crisis, the country was caught off guard and could no longer afford it. The RDOF programs described above do not include requirements to address the affordability needs of low-income households. By contrast, the BEAD plan calls for deploying projects to develop low-cost options, prioritizes proposals to improve affordability, and also requires states to develop plans to address middle-class affordability.
In addition to the BEAD program, the IIJA is allocating $14.2 billion for the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which helps low-income households with laptops, desktops, or laptops through a $30 monthly subsidy for broadband service and up to $100 in one-time purchase discounts tablet. This subsidy can be used in conjunction with Lifeline benefits. Additionally, the IIJA allocated $2.75 billion to the Digital Equity Act, which could be used for broadband adoption efforts. States should strongly consider building expertise by establishing broadband adoption offices or building capacity in already established and severely understaffed state broadband offices that are primarily focused on broadband access. There should be dedicated people who can assess and address the various needs of non-adopters, including affordability, digital skills, and privacy and security concerns. Countries should also work with trusted voices in communities that need to be connected.