Future Tense

2021 Was the Year We Finally Made a Dent in the Digital Divide

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Towfiqu barbhuiya/Unsplash

In November, President Biden signed into law the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The $1.2 trillion package includes $65 billion for broadband access, affordability, and adoption.

It’s about time: Despite the pandemic calling significant attention to the gap between those with and without broadband, frequently called the digital divide, it remains firmly entrenched.  According to the Federal Communications Commission, the total count for those in the country lacking access to the minimum standard of internet service is 21.3 million. Depending on how you count, however, it may be much worse: Other estimates, however, range from 42 million to 157.3 million people. (This wide range of estimates are caused by the underlying dataset of FCC maps, which is self-reported from providers and prone to over counting. Further, the FCC only collects data on the availability from providers, when we really need the numbers depicting broadband adoption.)

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This gap disproportionately affects low-income households. A June report from Pew found that 80 percent of white adults have home broadband adoption, compared with 71 percent of Black and 65 percent of Hispanic adults. The FCC’s 2018 Broadband Deployment Report estimated that 35 percent of residents on Tribal lands lacked access broadband speeds of 25/3 Mbps (the FCC defines broadband as a minimum of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds, often referred to as 25/3 Mbps), compared with 8 percent of the U.S. overall. While the funding appropriated by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is historic and will certainly narrow the divide, the money alone cannot close it. Actually closing the digital divide requires changes to the systems surrounding broadband deployment, affordability, and inclusion.

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The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act wisely requires internet service providers to adopt a “broadband nutrition label” or a standardized format for internet providers to disclose information about price, ancillary fees, and speeds. The package also funds the new Affordable Connectivity Program, which will provide $30 per month to qualifying low-income households and $75 in tribal areas to pay for internet service. Research by New America’s Open Technology Institute, where I work, shows that U.S. internet prices are among the world’s highest, particularly in rural and Tribal communities. (Disclosure: New America is a partner with Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense.) Providers that receive taxpayer funding through the Affordable Connectivity Program are required to regularly report pricing data to the Federal Communications Commission. The inclusion of a label for this program is a huge win for transparency: U.S. internet providers often bury information about service and price in confusing contracts, hidden fees, and convoluted billing schemes. This requirement will help consumers understand their total cost of service and facilitate comparison-shopping. But to close the digital divide for good requires pricing data collection for every provider, not just those participating in the Affordable Connectivity Program.

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Closing the digital divide, especially in rural areas, will also require protecting community-owned broadband networks, which are networks that are owned and operated entirely by communities, or public-private partnerships, from state laws outlawing their existence. Currently, community broadband networks serve more than 900 communities across the country. These networks maintained by city governments, Native Nations, rural utility cooperatives, and other local institutions can bolster competition among providers, thereby reducing costs for consumers while offering faster connection speeds. Further, community networks attract new businesses and improve the current employers’ ability to create more jobs. A 2017 report on community-owned fiber networks showed that community broadband networks charge less for broadband service than private competitors serving the same communities. The report also found residents of 24 areas across the United States where municipal service providers were available could save anywhere from $20 to $600 annually by subscribing to the municipal option, rather than to other private competitors in the area. Despite the proven success of these networks, 25 states currently have laws to create barriers for municipal broadband networks; 18 of these states have explicit prohibitions on public broadband services.

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In addition to protecting and promoting municipal broadband networks to increase competition, the government should strengthen antitrust enforcement in the internet services market. Antitrust enforcers such as the Federal Communications Commission and Department of Justice need to ensure a competitive marketplace and block mergers that undermine competition. The current U.S. market for home broadband is dominated by just four companies, the wireless market by just three. This lack of choice affects the cost and quality of internet service. Research demonstrates that competition at the 1 Gbps speed level (the equivalent of 1,000 Mbps) leads to price reduction. For plans advertised between 25 Mbps and 1,000 Mbps download speed, competition on average reduces prices by $13.28 to $29.08 per month. This research also found that each additional provider offering 1 Gbps service in a market reduces prices for comparable plans by $50 to $60 per month. Stronger enforcement of antitrust laws can block anticompetitive provider practices, prevent harmful mergers, or break up providers that have become too big.

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Closing the digital divide in Native Nations requires particular attention and policymaking. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, which became law in December 2020, included a $980 million Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program intended to expand access to broadband on Tribal Lands and support programs that promote the use of broadband access on Native Nations for remote learning, telework, or telehealth. In 2021, more than 280 Tribes have submitted requests for funding adding up to $5 billion, far exceeding the allotted amount for the program. Native Nations need more resources and access to policymaking that will create solutions that meet the particular needs of their communities.

Spectrum sovereignty is a superb example of a policy solution designed with Native Nations to solve connectivity issues in their communities. Public airwaves, or spectrum, are a range of electromagnetic frequencies used to transmit and receive information. The FCC divides spectrum into “bands” of frequencies and allocates the bands for purposes such as Wi-Fi, broadcasting, or mobile. In 2020, the FCC opened a “priority filing window” for tribal communities to apply for licenses in the 2.5GHz band prior to a commercial auction. This was an opportunity never before offered to Native Nations, and 292 applications were granted. Already, the Havasupai Tribe, located at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, has used its 2.5 GHz license to provide GED and community college classes for students on a reservation with only one elementary school, at 20 percent high school graduation rate, and no higher education opportunities. Moving forward, the tribe plans to use the license to increase telehealth and emergency service opportunities critical to a tribe located in such a remote area. Additionally, representatives from tribes across the country with 2.5 GHz licenses are gathering for Tribal Wireless Bootcamps to learn how to build wireless networks that connect buildings in their communities to broadband. But allocating spectrum to Indigenous communities doesn’t have to end with the 2.5 GHz spectrum proceeding. Every year or two, the FCC allocates new spectrum—and auction or not, it’s an opportunity for the prioritization of Native Nations. More broadly, include Indigenous voices in any conversation about policymaking to close the digital divide.

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Finally, the digital divide is further entrenched by a lack of ability to use technology and communicate digital information, otherwise known as digital literacy. The infrastructure package included the Digital Equity Act to provide funding to implement training programs that teach communities skills to access digital tools and provide technology to people needed to access broadband services. Many initiatives directly addressing digital literacy and inclusion already exist. For example, Philadelphia’s new Digital Navigators program “helps residents better access and use technology and the internet, from sharing info on low-cost internet options to advising on device setup.” Digital Navigators across the country are working to help members of their community learn to use online services that provide guidance with food support, rent, education, employment, and more. While programs funded by the infrastructure package will be instrumental in supporting this ongoing work to ensure all communities can understand and use technology, we can do more. A Digital Futures Foundation funded by a share of proceeds from spectrum auctions could continue the work to identify and support the best methods and investments in innovation to ensure all individuals can benefit from digital literacy and inclusion.

For many, the transition to life online felt, at least technologically speaking, seamless. During the height of the pandemic, those with broadband could continue distance learning, seeing their doctor virtually, working remotely, and connecting with loved ones on video calls. But while it’s become normal to assume that everyone has access to something as ubiquitous as the internet, that couldn’t be further than the truth.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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