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Digital Inclusion

Outreach Tactics that Cities Take to Address the Digital Divide Need to be Many and Varied

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Photo of Urban Institute Senior Policy Associate Richard Ezike courtesy www.drrcezike.com

June 4, 2020 — Cities must continuously adapt their strategies to provide technology services to the disadvantaged segments of their populations, said participants in an Urban Institute webinar Thursday.

The coronavirus has thrown a wrench in the career aspirations of millions across the United States. Since mid-March, 42 million of the United States’ 330 million residents have lost their jobs, at least temporarily, and research suggests that the coronavirus’s impact on low-income communities far outweighs that of their higher-income counterparts.

Consequently, government agencies like the Federal Communications Commission and the United States Department of Agriculture have discussed problems of technological access for low-income and rural Americans at length.

The FCC has directed millions of dollars toward increasing access to broadband for disadvantaged peoples through several channels, including 5G auctions and internet provider subsidies.

Additionally, in late March, Congress passed the CARES Act, landmark legislation that provided $1200 checks to citizens with annual incomes lower than $75,000.

However, participants in the webinar said that city governments must expand and diversify their attempts to serve low-income Americans.

“Cities must adapt and shift strategies continually in order to reach as many residents as possible, especially to those who have historically had inequitable access to services,” said Richard Ezike, Senior Policy Associate at the Urban Institute.

These strategies can come in a variety of forms, the other participants said.

“A lot of our work with New York City public agencies has been really transformed because the city made a big commitment to distribute cell network-enabled tablets to more than 250,000 New York City schoolchildren so that kids could still engage in remote learning, even if their family didn’t have a network or device at home,” said Chelsea Mauldin, Executive Director at the Public Policy Lab.

Dan Lurie, Chief of Policy at the Chicago Mayor’s office, said that they could also extend subsidies to traditional utilities.

Chicago has taken a “pretty innovative approach to just heavily subsidize based on a number of federal programs … that would allow us to automatically enroll and qualify folks who should be eligible for assistance to have their water bill subsidized by the city,” he said.

The pandemic’s long-term impact on marginalized communities is unclear, but government subsidies are increasing in number as officials scramble to shorten the United States’ economic tumble.

Elijah Labby was a Reporter with Broadband Breakfast. He was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and now resides in Orlando, Florida. He studies political science at Seminole State College, and enjoys reading and writing fiction (but not for Broadband Breakfast).

Digital Inclusion

Despite General Satisfaction with E-rate Program, Tribal Libraries Are Being Left Behind

Tribal community leaders are concerned over the effectiveness of outreach methods the FCC uses to fund broadband in tribal libraries.

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Miriam Jorgensen, research director of the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona

WASHINGTON, November 1, 2021 – Leaders of efforts to expand broadband in Indigenous communities are sounding the alarm to the Federal Communications Commission, saying that its E-rate program to supply libraries with funding for internet infrastructure is not effectively aiding tribal libraries despite extensive use of the program by non-tribal libraries.

Separate events held Wednesday heard this contrasting experience, when in the morning, E-rate compliance service firm Funds for Learning held a session to share generally positive experiences from a survey it conducted of what E-rate applicants thought of the program, and specifically its application portal. The program, which is supported by the Universal Service Fund, provides schools and libraries with broadband subsidies to keep students connected.

Hours later that day, the FCC held a virtual listening session for tribal leaders and staff to address a lack of E-rate broadband funding requests from tribal libraries.

“Nearly 40 percent of respondents had never heard of e-rate,” chat messaged meeting attendee Miriam Jorgensen, research director of the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona, referencing an Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, & Museums (ATALM) survey of tribal libraries.

“Many of those who had felt that the program was too complicated to apply for,” she said.

Susan Feller, president and CEO of the ATALM, said that tribal libraries do not see relevance for themselves in E-rate funds.

Low staff numbers causing fewer tribal applicants

Also brought up in the meeting as a possible explanation for the rarity of E-rate applications from tribal libraries was that the libraries often have a low staff capacity and seldom employ grant writers or part time employees who could assist in applying to funding opportunities.

According to Jim Dunstan, founder of Mobius Legal Group and lawyer for the Navajo Nation, many tribes are both E-rate providers and applicants for E-rate funds, causing technical problems during application for E-rate funds.

The Funds for Learning’s survey found that 73 percent of respondents planned on submitting an E-rate broadband funding application in 2022, with 46 percent saying they felt “strongly” that they would apply. Connectivity results for Indigenous nations are still low, as FCC Emergency Connectivity Fund money has gone to tribes in just nine states, while strong digital infrastructure remains rare in many Native American communities.

The response rate for the survey was higher than the response rate in each of the last four years of the survey’s administration from 2018 to 2020.

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Digital Inclusion

Rosenworcel Hails FCC’s Efforts on Mapping, Said Country Needs More Wi-Fi Access

Rosenworcel also emphasized spectrum policy and getting connectivity to low-income Americans.

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FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.

WASHINGTON, October 27, 2021 ­– Federal Communications Commission Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said Friday she is optimistic about the agency’s direction on new broadband mapping efforts and said the testing of the project has produced the best wireless coverage map in the country.

Speaking at the Marconi Society Symposium Friday, Rosenworcel said the mapping efforts are part driven by crowdsourced methods that she credited as a valuable way to ensure the maps are as accurate as possible.

The new maps are a product of the Broadband DATA Act, which is set to expand mapping efforts to make them more precise. The current mapping method, which uses Form 477 data, has led some companies to bid for federal funding in areas that are already served. The FCC is currently cleaning up the results of the $9.2 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund due to those errors.

Rosenworcel emphasizes spectrum policy

Additionally, Rosenworcel emphasized the need to improve spectrum policy. She suggested that this take place by making sure consumers benefit from competitive FCC auctions and placing more Wi-Fi access in locations where licensed airwaves see low usage.

Industry experts at the event stressed challenges that must be addressed in order to expand broadband access, such as the fact that low-income individuals will often reject offers to receive free internet. This happens because the individuals think that a free service will be low quality or that they will be tricked into paying for the service in the future.

During one panel, professor Margaret Martonosi of Princeton University explained the importance of realizing that utility functions present in rich and poor service markets are different, meaning that the appetite for internet service in richer communities is different from the appetite in poorer ones.

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Digital Inclusion

Catherine McNally: The Digital Divide is an Equality Issue

To work toward equal access, more affordable options must be created, including community-based solutions.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Catherine McNally, editorial lead for Reviews.org

Per the latest U.S. Census numbers, about one in four American households is stuck without internet. And a quarter million people with home internet still listen to the dial up screech when they hop online.

The majority of folks lacking home internet live in states with large rural populations and high rural poverty rates, like Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama.

In Mississippi, as an example, 60% of homes don’t have broadband, satellite or dial up. And 53% of the state’s population is considered rural with a rural poverty rate of 23%.

Limited options and slow speeds top the list of reasons why rural states are home to high numbers of disconnected households. But steep costs are the most imminent barrier to home internet in rural areas.

According to a 2020 report on worldwide internet pricing by Cable.co.uk, the U.S. is the most expensive country for internet out of all developed Western nations. Here, internet costs an average of $60 a month. Internet in the cheapest country, Ukraine, costs an average of $6.40 a month.

Digital divide deep dive: Issaquena County, Mississippi

Issaquena County is Mississippi’s least-connected county with only 20% of homes paying for an internet connection. The median income there is $14,154 per individual in 2019, compared to a $31,133 national median income. The overall poverty rate in the county is 29%, which is about 16% higher than the U.S. as a whole.

That is a glaring contrast to the most-connected county in the most-connected state: Morgan County, Utah. Morgan County is home to 95% of households with an internet connection, the median individual income there was $37,091 in 2019 and the overall poverty rate is 3%.

Residents of Issaquena County are lucky if they can get download speeds of 25 Mbps, which is the Federal Communication Commission’s current definition of “high speed internet.” The slowest speeds available, 5–12 Mbps, are barely enough to stream in HD, let alone connect to a Zoom call.

If we narrow down our view to Valley Park, a town of just over 100 people in Issaquena County, we see that some residents have the option of a single AT&T DSL internet plan.

The AT&T plan costs $660 a year for speeds of 25 Mbps, which barely keep up with critical modern-day online tools like online learning and telehealth.

Our case study of Issaquena County and Valley Park, Mississippi, highlights further opportunities tied to home connectivity and equality:

  • Access to online learning. About 23.7% of Issaquena County residents have obtained a high school degree, while 3.2% have no schooling. Online education allows individuals to expand their knowledge and further their careers.
  • Greater access to livable wages.5% of residents earn a household income of $10k or less. This is further divided by race: In 2019, Black and African American residents earned a median household income of $21,146, while white residents earned a median household income of $52,188.
  • More employment opportunities. The employment rate in Issaquena County has steadily declined since 1990. Now, 10.6% of residents are considered unemployed.
  • Better access to health care. The U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration found that half of Mississippi’s residents live in counties with more than 2,000 patients per primary care physician. Issaquena County has been designated a Medically Underserved Area since 1978, meaning the county has a shortage of primary care, dental and/or mental health providers. Better access to telehealth also enables residents who cannot make the drive to the nearest hospital or clinic.

Solving the digital divide

To work toward equal access, more affordable options must be created. The Emergency Broadband Benefit fund is one option, but it remains largely untapped by American households. Subsidies like Lifeline may also lower barriers to internet access, but participation remains low.

Community-focused solutions are likely a better answer, such as Land O’Lakes’s American Connection Project. The project opened more than 2,800 free public Wi-Fi locations in spots like the Tractor Supply Store in Spooner, Wisconsin, in order to keep farming communities connected.

Also significant is this year’s infrastructure bill, which calls on states to determine localized needs and strategies for improving affordability and access to the internet.

State sponsored projects may also solve the severe lack of competition between U.S. broadband services. This should reduce costs last-mile providers incur to connect to middle-mile networks, which could, and should, pass savings down to households. Case in point: California recently introduced an open access middle-mile project with the goal of providing nondiscriminatory access. The bill passed unanimously.

A modernized definition of what qualifies as “high speed internet” would also benefit rural households. Currently, the standard of 25 Mbps download speeds and 3 Mbps upload speeds shorts rural users of opportunities tied to telehealth, online learning and remote work.

This outdated definition allows service providers to complete minimum-viable network expansions and mark areas as “connected.” It also de-incentivizes providers to improve existing-but-subpar networks, such as the 10 Mbps DSL line I found offered in nearby Morton, Mississippi.

One thing is clear: The way the U.S. has approached internet access in the past does not work. New strategies and policies are required to repair the digital divide. Internet access is a right, not a privilege in today’s world.

Catherine McNally is an Editorial Lead for Reviews.org, where she reviews internet service providers across the US. She has a passion for using data to highlight the need for better internet access across the US and believes that internet is a critical lifeline in today’s world. She has also published speed test and pricing reports to help everyday consumers make informed decisions. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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