Last week, the House Committee on Energy & Commerce held a hearing entitled, “Broadband Equity: Addressing Disparities in Access and Affordability.” The digitization of in-person interactions during COVID-19 reinforced the notion that internet connection is essential to be integrated into today’s society. Where there are populations who still cannot access or afford internet connection, this hearing intended to address questions about today’s current broadband landscape. These questions come at a politically critical moment, as the Biden Administration recently put forth the American Jobs Plan, which contains a $100 billion fix to ensure broadband access to all Americans.
Here’s what you need to know about the experts’ testimonies:
The first to testify was Joi Chaney, from the Washington Bureau National Urban League, who posited that prior to COVID-19, many who did not have internet access took advantage of public “third spaces” with free Wi-Fi capabilities, such as libraries, cafes, or coffee shops. With COVID-19, and the shutdown of these public “third spaces,” Chaney argues low-income communities and minority communities were affected the most, citing a statistic all of her testifying counterparts alluded to at one point one or another: census data asserts that about 60% of Black households and 64% of Hispanic households have broadband at home, compared to 72% of White households. Further, 54% of households earning $50,000 or less have broadband at home, compared to 84 percent of households earning $75,000 or more. As Chaney sees the broadband issue as compounded by several other inequitable playing fields, Chaney argued for policy that would not only see through deployment and availability of networks, but would address the gap in adoption, utilization, and economic opportunity.
The next to testify was Chris Lewis, from Public Knowledge, who did note that for those who think broadband cannot be considered a utility like electricity, the Senate unanimously passed the CARES Act, which included internet access as a utility, when it defined a “covered utility payment” as a “payment for electricity, gas, water, transportation, telephone, or internet access.” Lewis asserted that Congress must promote competition in the marketplace, including lifting regulations in states which do not allow municipally-owned broadband providers. In tandem with this, Lewis mentioned that Congress must direct the FCC to collect data on what broadband actually costs and how competition affects the costs of broadband, so that policymakers can better cater programs to the specific needs of unserved communities. For low-income families, Lewis suggested Congress draw up options for a long-term broadband subsidy for qualifying individuals, and that Congress mandate that broadband providers offer a low-cost option.
Testifying next was Francella Ochillo, from Next Century Cities, who argued that municipal, cooperatives, mesh, and other nontraditional network models will play a vital role in ensuring broadband access nationwide. In communities where the private sector refuses to serve, Ochillo points out how these communities will remain economically disadvantaged, and that it is at the municipal level where communities understand the incentive to generate internet connectivity. Ochillo, like her testifying counterparts before her, capitalized on the necessity of teaching digital skills as a pathway to broadband adoption, as digital illiteracy has hindered many from being integrated into education, and the digital economy at large. Ochillo, like Lewis, also demanded Congress direct the FCC to find more accurate information on the current broadband landscape, specifically about broadband pricing, as federal programs cannot be created and enacted without a better understanding of which communities are being unserved and underserved. Ochillo asserted that the current federal broadband mapping system is unhelpful, and its process has an “exclusionary impact on local connectivity initiatives.”
Next to testify was George Ford, from the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal & Economic Public Policy Studies, who suggested that availability is not the issue with today’s broadband landscape, with 90% of Americans having access to capable internet service. Ford further cited that, in 2019, 86% of Americans lived in households with internet connection, and almost all broadband providers offer a low-cost broadband option for $10/20 a month, for qualifying low-income customers. Ford argued that the U.S. does have adoption issues, but at the very margins, which are very expensive to fix, as it is challenging to identify unserved areas and some of these areas view broadband as undesirable.
In reaching the 10%, Ford posited one must try their best to not damage the 90%, arguing targeted subsidies are better than untargeted subsidies. Another option, according to Ford, would be to decrease deployment costs for private providers by relieving administrative costs imposed by the government. In addressing racial disparities, Ford mentioned that monthly service subsidies may help, but that it was a gap he already saw closing with time.
When it comes to America’s digital divide, Thursday’s hearing was a reminder that broadband is community-specific, and will require careful, tailored responses. Although much is still unclear about broadband pricing and availability, there is a more complicated undercurrent which determines this debate, which is the persistence of communities that are not adopting and utilizing broadband, even though it is potentially affordable or available for them.