Leadership Conference, allies, and feds set out to conquer the digital divide
The late U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) used to say that affordable access to the internet is the civil rights issue of the 21st century. And we saw this during the pandemic, when whether or not students could get online often meant the difference between learning and being denied an education at a time when schools were shuttered and classrooms went virtual.
Now the federal government is addressing this inequity – and advocacy groups and service-providers across the country are jumping in to help.
Last year, as part of COVID-19 relief efforts, the Biden Administration implemented the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program, which temporarily provided discounts on what it costs to access the internet. EBB was eventually supplanted by the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP).
The ACP is one of the key provisions of President Biden’s landmark infrastructure bill – key not just because it will create jobs, help students learn, and grow our economy, but because it has the potential to substantially reduce racial and economic inequality in our country. The ACP expands access to the internet for tens of millions of Americans. It provides a monthly discount of up to $30 for access to the internet – up to $75 on tribal lands, where internet service can be sparse and more expensive. It also allows up to $100 for the purchase of a computer, laptop or tablet. Because many internet service providers have agreed to provide service in underserved communities for $30 a month, the ACP means that many families will receive (and indeed already are receiving) internet service for free.
Who qualifies for this benefit? If you receive certain income-based federal benefits such as SNAP, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), housing assistance or Medicaid, you probably already qualify. Same thing if you get Women’s, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program benefits, or if your kids qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch, or if you’ve received a federal Pell Grant during the current school year. To learn more, see if you qualify, and find out how to apply, go to www.getinternet.gov or www.ACPBenefit.org.
The ACP actually went live earlier this year, and already, more than 12 million low-income households have signed up. But now, advocates, led by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (LCCHR) and their partners and allies, are stepping up efforts to make sure more people know about the program and how to apply to get the benefits. This week, LCCHR and others engaged in a week of action, including tweets, blog posts, a webinar, and other events, to help publicize the new benefit.
One of the blog posts was authored by Adrianne B. Furniss, Executive Director of the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. In her post, Furniss noted that Americans are preparing to celebrate Juneteenth, the day in which slaves in Galveston, Texas first learned that President Lincoln had emancipated them more than two years earlier.
Then, as now, there was a communications divide.
“One hundred and fifty-seven years later, we can still see how lack of access to communications holds back individuals, families, and communities,” Furniss writes. “In 2022 as in 1865, too many people are still disadvantaged in part because lack of access to communications isolates them. Our challenge is to ensure everyone has the opportunity and ability to connect, regardless of where they live.”
On Monday, June 13, LCCHR kicked off the week of ACP promotion by hosting a webinar. Among the speakers: LCCHR President and CEO Maya Wiley; Susan Rice, Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council; and Jessica Rosenworcel, Chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission, the agency charged with implementing the ACP.
Wiley said she first encountered the racial component of the digital divide while working as a racial justice advocate with Black families in a rural area outside of Columbia, South Carolina. She encountered landowners who said, “We may be poor, but we have an asset – we have land. Shouldn’t we be able to get into this thing called the green economy and build more wealth in our communities?”
But what Wiley quickly found out was that the landowners could not do anything without broadband – and they didn’t have it. “It became very apparent to us that if we were going to solve structural racism, which was our mission, we actually had to pay attention to broadband as infrastructure and the racial justice and fairness of where and how that infrastructure was deployed,” she said.
Rice added that many families are either going without high speed internet because of the cost, or they are cutting back on other essentials so that they can make monthly internet service payments. “President Biden talks a lot about the so many students who had to go to McDonalds’ parking lots during the pandemic, to try to tap into Wi-Fi to do their homework,” she said. “This is the United States of America. We can do better.”
Rosenworcel said the U.S. has waited far too long to address the digital divide. “But now we are within reach of fixing it, we are within reach of closing it, and the reason why is that this pandemic has proven without a doubt that broadband is no longer nice to have – it is need to have, for everyone, everywhere,” she said.
In conclusion, she noted that the ACP is already the federal government’s largest and most successful digital expansion program, having signed up millions of households. “It is not audacious to say that we can have broadband reach everyone in this country, and it is not unreasonable to say that just like with telephone service and electricity service, we should have a program to help everyone afford basic broadband service,” she said. “Working together, we’re going to connect the next 12 million households, or better yet, everyone in this country, and let’s not stop until we do.”
Various governmental entities already are hard at work promoting the ACP. For example, earlier this year, the Social Security Administration mailed notices about the program to 1.6 million SSI recipients; later this summer, the Department of Education will notify all Pell Grant recipients. And states like Massachusetts and Michigan and cities like New York City, Philadelphia, and Mesa, Arizona, are texting all of their residents to inform them.
You can help by making sure people in your community, people you encounter, know about the websites http://www.ACPBenefit.org and www.getinternet.gov. Because for every low-income household that signs up, the digital divide in our country will grow that much smaller.