Commentary

Universal broadband isn’t just an infrastructure challenge. It’s also about adoption.

Make broadband subsidy program for low-income families permanent

July 15, 2021 4:30 am

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Here in the Denver metroplex, almost every neighborhood has broadband available at their doorsteps. The vast majority of households can choose between three or more providers.

While 13% of rural Coloradans lack broadband access, according to the Colorado Broadband Office, here are on the Front Range our digital divide is a challenge of broadband adoption, not infrastructure.

Too many of our neighbors — specifically among communities of color — are still cut off from the digital opportunities so many of us take for granted.

As President Joe Biden and Congress negotiate a $65 billion broadband deal, the urban disconnected must be front and center. Twenty-three percent of Americans are not online, and three out of four of these unconnected households are in cities and suburbs. Congress can use the infrastructure bill to close this broadband adoption gap, fund digital literacy, and invest in the outreach needed to move huge numbers online.

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An estimated 80% of white adults are online at home; just 71% of Black and 65% of Hispanic adults are. Nationwide, an estimated 13.6 million urban households, predominantly people of color, are without a connection — almost three times as many as the 4.6 million rural households who remain offline.

Encouragingly, we know what works — and what doesn’t — to attack the adoption challenge.

Broadband providers have long offered low-cost programs allowing low-income households to get online for as little as $10 a month, and these programs have helped over 14 million Americans get online. But sometimes even a $10 monthly charge is too much for struggling families trying to make ends meet.

To help families in need, Congress established the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) for a temporary $50 a month subsidy for home broadband to families struggling during the pandemic.

In the program’s first month, more than 33,000 households across Colorado — and more than 2.5 million nationally — enrolled.

Making the EBB permanent would go a long way toward extending the internet to those left behind. Leading civil rights advocates, such as UnidosUS and the National Urban League, have urged Biden to make it permanent as part of the infrastructure package.

To build a truly inclusive digital future, we need to understand why some of our neighbors aren’t connecting, even when offered a connection at no cost.

But even if we get that passed, it is only one piece of the puzzle. Last year, many school districts across the country partnered with broadband providers to offer students no-cost home internet service — only to find that many eligible families still didn’t enroll.

To build a truly inclusive digital future, we need to understand why some of our neighbors aren’t connecting, even when offered a connection at no cost.

One major new study argues for aggressive community outreach and education: Many eligible families don’t know these programs exist, or don’t trust the fine print. Unconnected households are also more likely to struggle with language barriers and digital literacy gaps. And many poor families often don’t know how long they will be able to live under a particular roof — much less how they can sign up for broadband service.

That’s why the broadband package also needs to include funding for on-the-ground, community-based outreach and education programs, evangelized by credible community ambassadors — Boys & Girls Clubs, libraries, churches, and others — with the reach and credibility to meet unconnected Americans where they live. We need a particularly dedicated effort to reach immigrant and English-learner households, where digital skills gaps are even more prevalent.

Alarmingly, this two-pronged approach — a permanent subsidy program for low-income families paired with an aggressive plan to attack the many barriers to adoption — was painfully absent from the administration’s initial proposal.

Instead, the White House rollout put all of its chips on an “if you build it, they will come” strategy, gambling that just building additional, government-owned broadband networks in areas that already have world-class infrastructure will somehow solve the adoption problem on its own.

But research has shown that simply building more networks in already-wired places doesn’t do much to increase broadband adoption, compared to quicker, more effective, and more direct solutions like subsidies for low-income households.

We can’t just build our way to universal connectivity: We need major federal investments in closing the adoption gap too. Every Coloradan, regardless of geography, race, or economic status, deserves an opportunity to share in our connected future.

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Robert Rodriguez
Robert Rodriguez

Sen. Robert Rodriguez represents the 32nd District in the Colorado Senate.

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