AT&T CEO: Working from home is changing internet trafficSeptember 10, 2020
Gigi Sohn is a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology, Law & Policy and a Benton senior fellow and public advocate. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
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.
America’s broadband affordability problem has taken on a far greater urgency during a pandemic in which roughly one quarter of households have seen layoffs or pay cuts. Desperate to get online to find work, educate their children and receive health care, many Americans have been forced to huddle in school parking lots or near fast food restaurants just to access essential services.
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. Some of these proposals are even being supported by the broadband industry, which has long resisted government involvement in its business.
America’s pricey broadband has been a problem for a long time. Thanks to a lack of competition among broadband internet service providers (ISPs), Americans pay some of the highest prices for broadband in the developed world.
Roughly 162 million Americans don’t have access to the internet at broadband speeds due to high prices and a lack of faster options, according to a 2019 study from Microsoft. Meanwhile, there are estimates that anywhere from 21 million to 42 million Americans lack access to any broadband at all.
Minorities and low-income Americans, particularly in urban areas, are disproportionately on the wrong side of this digital divide. Only 56% of American families making less than $30,000 annually have a broadband connection at home. And 66% of Black and 61% of Hispanic adults have home broadband, compared to 79% of Whites.
Currently, low-income Americans receive a $9.25 monthly subsidy through the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program, a small stipend that must be spent on either cell phone, telephone, broadband or cable service. While this decades-old subsidy provides essential aid to low-income communities, it’s simply not enough to help the most vulnerable Americans afford the kind of robust broadband connectivity needed to participate in our society and our economy.
In recognition of this shortfall and in response to the pandemic, last May the House passed the Heroes Act, which still awaits Senate approval. This legislation earmarks $5.5 billion to help expand broadband access to underserved areas, and another $8.8 billion to provide a $50 per month discount on broadband service to help low-income Americans and the recently unemployed to pay for broadband access. That discount jumps to $75 per month for those living in tribal areas.
Several other proposals before Congress, including Democratic Representative Marc Veasy’s Emergency Broadband Connections Act of 2020 and Democratic Senator Ron Wyden’s Emergency Broadband Connections Act of 2020, not only seek to offer similar discounts, but also authorize US libraries to provide broadband service beyond the confines of their property lines.
These bills acknowledge the urgent importance of expanding essential internet access during a public health crisis. The Moving Forward Act, passed by the House in July, would make the $50 per month discount permanent, in recognition that the digital divide will not magically disappear once the virus is under control.
Importantly, the broadband industry has pivoted to embrace low-income broadband aid. The US wireless industry began circulating its own proposal for two $50 vouchers per month to be doled out to low-income households and recently out-of-work Americans throughout the duration of the pandemic. It has since lowered the amount to two $25 vouchers per month, but the idea remains the same.
Broadband companies like Comcast, Charter and Verizon have also jumped on the bandwagon, proposing a monthly subsidy of between $20 and $50 for low-income Americans during the pandemic.
For the first time, industry is admitting that it can’t do this on its own and the government has a major role to play in ensuring that everyone, everywhere has access to an essential service during a health and economic crisis.
With industry, public interest groups and many lawmakers already on board, Congress has a huge opportunity to make sure that every American is online during this national emergency and beyond. It should pass a monthly broadband benefit for low-income and recently out-of-work Americans without delay.
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