Digital equity — now is the time to get it right

President Joe BidenThe bipartisan infrastructure bill offers an unprecedented opportunity to realize the dream of universal connectivity and digital literacy.

We must ensure that those on the unfortunate side of the digital divide are not left behind once again. To translate this generational chance into transformational change, we’ll need a smarter understanding of the challenge – and the discipline not to waste those precious dollars on false promises or political patronage.

We have learned the hard way that high hopes and ambitious investments are not enough to achieve success. The 2009 infrastructure program included $7.2 billion for broadband, but wasted huge chunks by cronyism and redundancy – including wiring to affluent suburban neighborhoods that already had broadband service.

This time, implementation must be guided by rigorous research and on-the-ground partnerships and perspectives. It is fiscally irresponsible and morally indefensible to waste limited public funds building duplicate networks for those with quick options in place, including the 88% of American households who already have access to ultra-fast gigabit internet speeds.

This even applies to municipally owned and operated broadband networks, which have failed in one city after another; political capital should not be wasted on this ideological chimera.

Instead, policymakers should set aside preconceptions and dig deeper into the data on the encouraging but unfinished success of public and private sector programs subsidizing broadband subscriptions.

The most recent data show that 97.5% of Americans live in neighborhoods served by broadband networks. Corn only 77% of all Americans subscribe. Digital inequalities reflect broader racial and economic inequalities where 71% of African Americans and 65% Hispanic have broadband at home, just like 57% of low-income people. This indicates that instead of spending limited dollars on duplicate projects in areas that already have fast networks in place, we instead need laser focus to ensure that low-income urban families who have not not yet subscribers do so.

That’s the goal of the Infrastructure Bill’s groundbreaking $14.2 billion Affordable Connectivity Program, which now provides every earning family up to twice the federal poverty level for up to $30 per month to purchase broadband service.

If glossy brochures and TV spots were enough to convince people to sign up for the information age, the CPA’s success would be predestined. But since people without an online connection are more skeptical and harder to reach, we need old-fashioned person-to-person persuasion.

We must arouse the interest and curiosity of one neighbor at a time.

Trusted community leaders, including clergy, educators, and neighborhood activists, should be enlisted to evangelize the program to neighbors at local churches, barbershops, laundromats, and small businesses. People who already participate in the program can serve as neighborhood ambassadors, explaining how Internet access has improved their lives.

Done properly, the CPA could take its place in the tradition of social safety net programs providing all Americans with basic levels of nutrition, housing, and health care. We have a historic opportunity to make the age of information an age of fairness.

Let’s make the most of this moment.

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Allison Clark, Ph.D. has spent 15 years as a researcher and advocate for the expansion of digital access and literacy. She is the founder of Black and Blue Research. Clark is from Volusia County and lives in Orange County.


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Julio V. Miller