New federal and state programs tackle broadband inequality

Jessica Rosenworcel, the FCC's acting chair, is seen here speaking at 2017 event in North Carolina addressing digital inequity. Last month her agency approved the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which will provide subsidies to help low-income families afford high-speed internet. (North Carolina Department of Information Technology photo via Flickr.)

When the coronavirus pandemic began a year ago, millions of Americans struggled to transition to remote work and learning — a shift that was complicated by broadband inequality.

At least 21 million Americans lack access to high speed internet, with some estimates doubling that number. To help fix the problem, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) formally approved the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program last month. The program was funded with $3.2 billion from the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, the stimulus package Congress passed in December, to lower the price of high-speed internet for eligible households.

The program will provide up to a $50 monthly discount to low-income Americans for broadband, up to a $75 discount for households on tribal lands, and up to $100 to help with the cost of purchasing a computer or tablet. Anyone who uses the FCC's Lifeline program for discounted telephone services, is enrolled in Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, receives free or reduced school lunch or Pell grants, or experienced a loss of income since the pandemic can apply for the internet discount by the end of April.

"This is a program that will help those at risk of digital disconnection. It will help those sitting in cars in parking lots just to catch a Wi-Fi signal to go online for work," Jessica Rosenworcel, the FCC's acting chair, said in a statement. "It will help those lingering outside the library with a laptop just to get a wireless signal for remote learning. It will help those who worry about choosing between paying a broadband bill and paying rent or buying groceries."

Over half of Americans say the internet has been crucial during the coronavirus outbreak, according to a Pew Research Center report published in April. But about 54% of Latinos and 36% of Black people said they were worried about paying their internet bills, compared to 21% of white people.

"The data consistently bears out that the primary barrier to people connecting to the internet and the biggest driver of our digital divide right now is lack of affordability," Dana Floberg, a policy manager with the media justice group Free Press, told Facing South.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program also requires internet service providers to sign up to participate. Broadband companies including AT&T and Comcast have voiced support for the program. These providers have established more affordable services for low-income Americans in the past.

Before the enrollment period for the program launches next month, organizations and state governments are working to spread awareness.

Accessing broadband in the South

Beyond the rebate and the $7 billion Congress allocated to connect Americans to high-speed Internet, state governments in the South are also working to tackle broadband inequality through varied approaches.

In Texas, which ranks 35th in the nation for broadband adoption, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) made widening broadband access a priority during his State of the State address in February. The state established a Broadband Development Council in 2019, which found that 1 million Texans lacked access to broadband, according to the Dallas Morning News. More recent estimates put that number at over 4 million.

Last November, the council released its first report to the governor's office, recommending that the state create a broadband office and a state grant program among other initiatives, said Jennifer Harris, a council member and a program director at Connected Nation Texas.

"Those recommendations have been directly reflected in legislation that has been filed this legislative session," Harris said.

Connected Nation Texas functions as a public-private organization that works to broaden access to high-speed internet in the state, and Harris said they often field calls from Texans with questions about slow internet speeds and accessing telehealth. A state broadband office could be what Harris called a "neutral resource" for communities that want information about better internet.

North Carolina has an established Broadband Infrastructure Office under the state Department of Information Technology. Last week, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) announced a partnership with SpaceX's Starlink satellite internet service to launch a pilot program to help students in the state's underserved regions access broadband. According to a press release, the deal will use $264,000 from the CARES Act, the first federal coronavirus stimulus bill signed into law in March 2020.

Jeff Sural, the director of the state's Broadband Infrastructure Office, said they chose Swain County in Western North Carolina and Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks for the program because they are geographically different locations. The state is also working on adding students in Warren County, along the Virginia border, Sural said. All three of those are rural counties. Fewer than 100 students statewide will participate in the program, which lasts to the end of the calendar year, the groups in the pilot must be clustered, and the service will not be available all day.

Sural and his office are also gearing up to spread the word about the FCC's benefit program through social media campaigns and partnerships with smaller broadband companies in the state, as well as community colleges and libraries.

During the pandemic, North Carolina's Broadband Infrastructure Office has heard concerns from the community about bandwidth problems and affordability. " The issue that we hear about most is quality of service," Sural said. "Either folks don't have service, or the service they have isn't reliable. It cuts out on them or there's not enough bandwidth so that they can work from home and the kids can go to school from home."

Affordability concerns are also an issue in the state's urban areas, which have access to broadband that can be costly, he said. Solutions to broadband inequality in the state include better public policy, which is already being discussed and introduced, and subsidies for people who can't afford high-speed internet, according to Sural.

While the South is geographically diverse, large portions of the region are classified as rural. About 22% of Americans in rural areas lack access to broadband, according to the FCC's 2020 Broadband Deployment Report.

"It is more challenging to build broadband networks in rural areas where there are fewer people to serve, and broadband companies see less of a return on investment to build in these hard to reach places," Floberg of Free Press said. "For many communities in the South that are lower income, that are predominately communities of color, what we've seen is that often the major broadband providers are not as interested in serving those communities."