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Major Change on the Horizon? Explaining the Affordable, Accessible Internet for All Act

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Photo of House Majority Whip James Clyburn from March 2012 by the Office of the House Speaker

December 2, 2020 – As House GOP leaders ask the Government Accountability Office to audit the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ReConnect program because of concerns federal funds are being used to “overbuild,” Democratic leaders in the House and Senate have filed legislation that aims to build broadband infrastructure on a national-scale.

The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act is a bill that harkens back to when the federal government – through FDR’s Rural Electrification Administration, established in 1935, and the Rural Electrification Act, passed by Congress in 1936 – invested in local cooperatives and brought electricity to the abundance of Americans still living in candle-lit homes without electrically-powered refrigerators.

The proposed legislation may well frame the Democratic agenda on broadband moving forward, as the Biden administration enters the White House in January. It’s a bold bill that has garnered the support of a who’s-who of broadband experts and advocacy organizations from Public Knowledge, the National Consumer Law Center and New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute to the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

Breaking it Down

There’s a lot to unpack in this bill, which is why we are publishing a series of posts exploring the major sections contained in the proposed legislation. This first installment is the 30,000-foot view. Forthcoming posts will examine the legislative details where the devil – or the better angels – can be found.

Broadly, the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act calls for a $100 billion investment to build high-speed broadband infrastructure that targets unserved and underserved parts of the country. It aims to ensure that every household has affordable and reliable access to online education, telemedicine, remote work, and other business opportunities in which Internet connectivity can no longer be considered a mere luxury, but a necessity.

In the U.S. House of Representatives, the legislation, which has already passed in the House, is being led by House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-SC) and members of the House Rural Broadband Task Force. The Senate version of the bill was filed in July by U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, and is being co-sponsored by Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI), Mark R. Warner (D-VA), Ed Markey (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV), Jacky Rosen (D-NV), and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris (D-CA).

“When we invest in broadband infrastructure, we invest in opportunity for every American,” Klobuchar said when the bill was filed. “In 2020, we should be able to bring high-speed [I]nternet to every family in America — regardless of their zip code — and this legislation is a critical step to help bridge the digital divide once and for all.”

As has become apparent since the pandemic lockdown last spring, the “underserved (and unserved) communities” in America comprise a significant portion of the U.S. population. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) estimates there are 18.3 million Americans who lack access to fixed broadband in the United States that meets minimum Internet access speed of 25/3 Megabits per second (Mbps). However, as we have reported numerous times here and discussed in various podcasts, the FCC maps almost certainly overstate actual broadband coverage. Some studies indicate the FCC is undercounting the number of people in the U.S. without fixed broadband access and that there may be as many as 41 million people without access.

The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act proposes to address the digital divide and encourage universal broadband access by:

  • Allocating $80 billion to deploy high-speed broadband infrastructure across the nation.
  • Earmarking $5 billion for low-interest financing of broadband deployment through a new secured loan program.
  • Establishing a new office within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to ensure efficient use of federal money.

It aims to ensure affordability by:

  • Requiring an affordable option for Internet service plans offered on the newly-built infrastructure.
  • Providing a $50 monthly subsidy for low-income consumers.
  • Directing the FCC to collect and publicize data on prices charged for broadband service throughout the country.

The bill looks to promote adoption by:

  • Providing over $1 billion to establish grant programs for states to close gaps in broadband adoption, as well as digital inclusion projects for organizations and local communities to implement.
  • Including $5 billion to enable students without Internet at home to participate in remote learning.
  • Authorizing funding for Wi-Fi on school buses so students can stay connected, especially in rural areas where longer bus rides are common.

A Wealth of Support, But No Guarantee

Joining a chorus of expert voices in support of the bill, Gigi Sohn – Distinguished Fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy, former senior adviser to FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, and one of a handful of names floated as a possible new FCC chair in the Biden administration – lauded the proposed legislation:

The Senate version of the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act includes all of the critical provisions of the House version, but goes even further to address this country’s gaping digital divide. Like the House bill, it addresses the twin problems of broadband affordability and lack of network infrastructure and seeks to promote competition in a consolidated market by preferencing open access networks and repealing state laws that prohibit communities from building their own broadband networks. In addition, the Senate bill would expand the FCC’s Rural Health Care program to provide funding for telehealth programs in urban as well as rural areas, and would create a fund to ensure that higher education students in need have access to robust broadband during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has laid bare the need for every American to have robust, high speed broadband Internet access at home … It is long past time for Congress to act. Thanks to Senator Klobuchar and her Senate colleagues for co-sponsoring this vital legislation. The Senate should pass this bill without delay.

Prospects for passage of the bill, however, hinges on the outcome of the U.S. Senate run-off races in Georgia, as was noted in an op-ed published in the Albany Herald last week, co-authored by Clyburn and Georgia Congressman Sanford Bishop. “The votes of Georgians on Jan. 5 will determine whether 1 million Georgians and millions more across America are swiftly connected to the [I]nternet so they can participate fully in 21st-century commerce, health care, and education,” they wrote.

If the Democrats prevail in Georgia, it would tip the scales of power in the U.S. Senate where, Clyburn and Bishop lament, “Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, assisted by Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, has buried the legislation in his graveyard.”

In the second installment of this series, we will dive into the “Title I – Digital Equity” section of the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act.

Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Sean Gonsalves, a senior reporter, editor and researcher for the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. Originally published on MuniNetworks.org, the piece is part of a collaborative reporting effort between Broadband Breakfast and the Community Broadband Networks program at ILSR.

Sean Gonsalves is a longtime former reporter, columnist, and news editor with the Cape Cod Times. He is also a former nationally syndicated columnist in 22 newspapers, including the Oakland Tribune, Kansas City Star and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, USA Today, the Washington Post and the International Herald-Tribune. An award-winning newspaper reporter and columnist, Sean also has extensive experience in both television and radio. Sean has made appearances on WGBH’s “Greater Boston” TV show with Emily Rooney and was a frequent guest on New England Cable News (NECN), commentating on a variety of Cape Cod tourist attractions. He left print journalism in 2014 to work as a senior communication consultant for Regan Communications and Pierce-Cote, advising a variety of business, non-profit and government agency clients on communication strategy. In October 2020, Sean joined the Institute for Local Self Reliance staff as a senior reporter, editor and researcher for ILSR’s Community Broadband Network Initiative.

Digital Inclusion

Digital Inclusion Week Highlights Focus on Broadband-Disconnected Urban Residents

Most Americans benefitting from federal spending on rural broadband are white non-Hispanic Americans, says NDIA.

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Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance

WASHINGTON, October 8, 2021 – Experts on digital empowerment pressed the federal government to maintain a focus on broadband equity during a Wednesday event, hosted on Wednesday by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance as part of “National Digital Inclusion Week.”

Speaking about the broader agenda for NDIA, Angela Siefer, the non-profit group’s executive director, said that NDIA’s purpose was to provide “peer-to-peer learning. We get the conversation started. Everything we get is from boots on the ground.”

This theme of community-informed practice and knowledge sharing echoed throughout the presentation.

Siefer said that NDIA “learned that digital redlining is happening in Cleveland” from discoveries that came from having boots on the ground and from living there.

“Digital redlining” refers to discrimination by ISPs in deployment, maintenance, upgrade or delivery of services. Often, as was alleged in Cleveland, NDIA accused AT&T of avoiding making fiber upgrades to broadband infrastructure. The group has also published reports with the Communications Workers of America making similar charges.

These discoveries have built momentum for some, including New York Democratic Rep. Yvette Clark’s Anti-Digital Redlining Act, introduced in August. The bill attempts to ban systematic broadband underinvestment in low-income communities.

Panelists argued that federal government perpetuates digital divide

Underinvestment in historically excluded communities extends beyond large corporations’ – it includes the U.S. federal government’s broadband investment approach. Paolo Balboa, NDIA’s programs and data manager, said that federal government perpetuates racism within the digital divide.

Balboa discussed how federal broadband programs focus funds on expanding availability to residents in unserved and underserved rural areas, but ignore the many – often black and brown – urban Americans lacking high-speed internet access.

But NDIA’s research found that most Americans benefitting from federal spending on rural broadband are white non-Hispanic Americans. Americans who lack home broadband service for reasons besides local network availability are disproportionately of color, says NDIA.

The panelists argued that federal policies directed at closing the digital divide by spending primarily on rural infrastructure leaves out the digital inclusion programs urban and some rural inhabitants need.

Amy Huffman, Munirih Jester, Paolo Balboa, Miles Miller

In finding that fewer than 5 % of the bulk of American households without home broadband are rural, NDIA argues for a federal policy approach centering cost of access as the solution to connecting more families of color. The officials advocate a broader focus that includes the experiences of urban city and county residents for whom cost is the major barrier.

Munirih Jester, NDIA programs director said that NDIA keeps an active list of free and low-cost internet plan available for low-income households, and how they may access it to find affordable ISPs.

Amy Huffman, NDIA policy director, discussed the provision of COVID-19 response funding. She highlighted organization’s resources to raise awareness of the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit, a program to help households afford Internet service during the pandemic.

This year, more than 100 events were registered as part of this week’s Digital Inclusion week, with many visible on the NDIA blog, said Yvette Scorse, NDIA Communications Director.

In a statement this Monday, the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications Infrastructure Agency spotlighted the agency’s efforts on the topic, including its Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program which is making $980 million available to Native American communities.

As previously reported this August, NTIA recently launched Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program making $268 million in grant funds available to HBCUs and other Minority-serving institutions.

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Digital Inclusion

Lack of Public Broadband Pricing Information a Cause of Digital Divide, Say Advocates

Panelists argued that lack of equitable digital access is deadly and driven by lack of competition.

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September 24, 2021- Affordability, language and lack of competition are among the factors that continue to perpetuate the digital divide and related inequities, according to panelists at a Thursday event on race and broadband.

One of the panelists faulted the lack of public broadband pricing information as a root cause.

In poorer communities there’s “fewer ISPs. There’s less competition. There’s less investment in fiber,” said Herman Galperin, associate professor at the University of Southern California. “It is about income. It is about race, but what really matters is the combination of poverty and communities of color. That’s where we find the largest deficits of broadband infrastructure.”

While acknowledging that “there is an ongoing effort at the [Federal Communications Commission] to significantly improve the type of data and the granularity of the data that the ISPs will be required to report,” Galperin said that the lack of a push to make ISP pricing public will doom that effort to fail.

He also questioned why ISPs do not or are not required to report their maps of service coverage revealing areas of no or low service. “Affordability is perhaps the biggest factor in preventing low-income folks from connecting,” Galperin said.

“It’s plain bang for their buck,” said Traci Morris, executive director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University, referring to broadband providers reluctance to serve rural and remote areas. “It costs more money to go to [tribal lands].”

Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has only made that digital divide clearer and more deadly. “There was no access to information for telehealth,” said Morris. “No access to information on how the virus spread.”

Galperin also raised the impact of digital gaps in access upon homeless and low-income populations. As people come in and out of homelessness, they have trouble connecting to the internet at crucial times, because – for example – a library might be closed.

Low-income populations also have “systemic” digital access issues struggling at times with paying their bills having to shut their internet off for months at a time.

Another issue facing the digital divide is linguistic. Rebecca Kauma, economic and digital inclusion program manager for the city of Long Beach, California, said that residents often speak a language other than English. But ISPs may not offer interpretation services for them to be able to communicate in their language.

Funding, though not a quick fix-all, often brings about positive change in the right hands. Long Beach received more than $1 million from the U.S. CARES Act, passed in the wake of the early pandemic last year. “One of the programs that we designed was to administer free hotspots and computing devices to those that qualify,” she said.

Some “band-aid solutions” to “systemic problems” exist but aren’t receiving the attention or initiative they deserve, said Galperin. “What advocacy organizations are doing but we need a lot more effort is helping people sign up for existing low-cost offers.” The problem, he says, is that “ISPs are not particularly eager to promote” low-cost offers.

The event “Race and Digital Inequity: The Impact on Poor Communities of Color,” was hosted by the Michelson 20MM Foundation and its partners the California Community Foundation, Silicon Valley Community Foundation and Southern California Grantmakers.

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Digital Inclusion

Outreach ‘Most Valuable Thing’ for Emergency Broadband Benefit Program: Rosenworcel

FCC Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel said EBB will benefit tremendously from local outreach efforts.

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Internet Innovation Alliance Co-Chair Kim Keenan

WASHINGTON, September 13, 2021 – The head of the Federal Communications Commission said Monday that a drawback of the legislation that ushered in the $3.2-billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program is that it did not include specific funding for outreach.

“There was no funding to help a lot of these non-profit and local organizations around the country get the word out [about the program],” Jessica Rosenworcel said during an event hosted by the Internet Innovation Alliance about the broadband affordability divide. “And I know that it would get the word out faster if we had that opportunity.”

The program, which launched in May and provides broadband subsidies of $50 and $75 to qualifying low-income households, has so-far seen an uptake of roughly 5.5 million households. The program was a product of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.

“We gotta get those trusted local actors speaking about it because me preaching has its limitations and reaching out to people who are trusted in their communities to get the word out – that is the single most valuable thing we can do,” Rosenworcel said.

She said the FCC has 32,000 partners and has held more than 300 events with members of Congress, tribal leaders, national and local organizations, and educational institutions to that end.

“Anyone who’s interested, we’ll work with you,” she said.

EBB successes found in its mobile friendliness, language inclusion

Rosenworcel also preached the benefits of a mobile application-first approach with the program’s application that is making it accessible to large swaths of the population. “I think, frankly, every application for every program with the government should be mobile-first because we have populations, like the LatinX population, that over index on smartphone use for internet access.

“We gotta make is as easy as possible for people to do this,” she said.

She also noted that the program is has been translated into 13 languages, furthering its accessibility.

“We have work to do,” Rosenworcel added. “We’re not at 100 percent for anyone, and I don’t think we can stop until we get there.”

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