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Digital Inclusion

Joe Supan: Why Internet Under 5 Megabits Per Second Should be Free

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Joe Supan, senior writer at Allconnect

“Everybody ought to have access to a computer; everybody ought to have access to the internet; everybody ought to know how to use it.”

President Bill Clinton said this more than 20 years ago to an auditorium full of students at Frank W. Ballou Senior High School in Washington, D.C. Much of the speech is predictably dated — he uses “the Net” a lot and explains eBay as a virtual farmer’s market — but rereading his quotes on the digital divide, it’s remarkable how little has changed.

While much of the country enjoys great internet speeds, the balance is woefully lopsided. The U.S. has the 12th fastest broadband speeds in the world on average, according to Speedtest.net, but 27 percent of adults still don’t have a home broadband connection at all.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on this gap. Of the 50 million students sent home by school closings, over nine million had no home internet to use for virtual classes, primarily because their household can’t afford it. Telehealth visits were also up 154 percent in the last week of March 2020 compared with the previous year. As Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, told CBS’s “Face the Nation,” “All of a sudden, the internet is no longer optional. You can’t participate in this economy without access to the internet.”

But even before the pandemic hit, it was already clear that widespread broadband access is essential to a functioning society. At least six independent studies have found that broadband is a direct contributor to jobs and a nation’s gross domestic product growth. Students with home internet connections consistently score higher in reading, math and science tests. And as we’re learning with the vaccine rollout, where signup predominantly occurs online, lack of internet access can be a major impediment to public health, too.

But access alone isn’t the only barrier. For millions of Americans, high-speed internet is simply too expensive to fit into their monthly budget. One study from the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society found low-income Americans can only afford $10 per month for an internet connection, while the average broadband subscription costs around $60 per month — sixth highest of the 23 countries studied in a Brookings analysis.

To truly make a dent in the digital divide, price will need to be addressed as stridently as access. We can start by making all broadband plans with download speeds under 5 Mbps free to all Americans. That’s still well below the FCC’s minimum threshold of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) for broadband, but it’s a start. With 5 Mbps, one person could comfortably join Zoom meetings, search for jobs, complete homework assignments and even sign up for a COVID-19 vaccine.

Free broadband is not as far-fetched as it might sound, and it actually has some precedent in the U.S. In 1985, the Reagan administration established the Lifeline program, which subsidized $9.25 per month for basic phone connectivity, or about $23 in today’s economy. With most cheap internet plans starting around $20 to $30 per month, providing a federal subsidy for broadband plans up to 5 Mbps would be entirely within the realm of possibility.

“What should our big goal be?” President Clinton asked the audience of high school students. “Our big goal should be to make connection to the internet as common as connection to telephones is today. That’s what our big goal ought to be.”

It’s been 21 years since that goal was laid out, and five since the U.N. declared internet access a basic human right. COVID-19 has exposed just how far we still have to go to make that a reality. But now more than ever, it’s essential that we close the digital divide for good.

Joe Supan oversees all things wireless and streaming for Allconnect. His work has been referenced by McAfee, Fox and others. He’s written extensively on broadband topics, from in-depth breakdowns of the top music and TV streaming services to breaking news on stories like Fox broadcasting NFL games for the first time in 4K. 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.

Digital Inclusion

Doug Lodder: How to Prevent the Economic Climate from Worsening the Digital Divide

There are government programs created to shrink the digital divide, but not many Americans know what’s out there.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Doug Lodder, president of TruConnect

From gas to groceries to rent, prices are rocketing faster than they have in decades. This leaves many American families without the means to pay for essentials, including cellphone and internet services. In fact, the Center on Poverty and Social Policy reports that poverty rates have been steadily climbing since March. We’re talking about millions of people at risk of being left behind in the gulf between those who have access to connectivity and those who don’t.

We must not allow this digital divide to grow in the wake of the current economic climate. There is so much more at stake here than simply access to the internet or owning a smartphone.

What’s at stake if the digital divide worsens

Our reliance on connectivity has been growing steadily for years, and the pandemic only accelerated our dependence. Having a cell phone or internet access are no longer luxuries, they are vital necessities.

When a low-income American doesn’t have access to connectivity, they are put at an even greater disadvantage. They are limited in their ability to seek and apply for a job, they don’t have the option of convenient and cost-effective telehealth, opportunities for education shrink, and accessing social programs becomes more difficult. I haven’t even mentioned the social benefits that connectivity gives us humans—it’s natural to want to call our friends and families, and for many, necessary to share news or updates. The loss or absence of connectivity can easily create a snowball effect, compounding challenges for low-income Americans.

The stakes are certainly high. Thankfully, there are government programs created to shrink the digital divide. The challenge is that not many Americans know what’s out there.

What can be done to improve it

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration created the federal Lifeline program to subsidize phones and bring them into every household. The program has since evolved to include mobile and broadband services.

More than 34 million low-income Americans are eligible for subsidized cell phones and internet access through the Lifeline program. Unfortunately, only 1 in 5 eligible people are taking advantage of the program because most qualified Americans don’t even know the program exists.

The situation is similar with the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program, another federal government program aimed at bringing connectivity to low-income Americans. Through ACP, qualifying households can get connected by answering a few simple questions and submitting eligibility documents.

Experts estimate that 48 million households—or nearly 40% of households in the country—qualify for the ACP. But, just like Lifeline, too few Americans are taking advantage of the program.

So, what can be done to increase the use of these programs and close the digital divide?

Our vision of true digital equity is where every American is connected through a diverse network of solutions. This means we can’t rely solely on fixed terrestrial. According to research from Pew, 27% of people earning less than $30,000 a year did not have home broadband and relied on smartphones for connectivity. Another benefit of mobile connectivity—more Americans have access to it. FCC data shows that 99.9% of Americans live in an LTE coverage area, whereas only 94% of the country has access to fixed terrestrial broadband where they live.

Additionally, we need more local communities to get behind these programs and proactively market them. We should see ads plastered across billboards and buses in the most impacted areas. Companies like ours, which provide services subsidized through Lifeline and ACP, market and promote the programs, but we’re limited in our reach. It’s imperative that local communities and their governments invest more resources to promote Lifeline, ACP and other connectivity programs.

While there’s no panacea for the problem at hand, it is imperative that we all do our part, especially as the economic climate threatens to grow the digital divide. The fate of millions of Americans is at stake.

Doug Lodder in President of TruConnect, a mobile provider that offers eligible consumers unlimited talk, text, and data, a free Android smartphone, free shipping, and access to over 10 million Wi-Fi hotspots; free international calling to Mexico, Canada, South Korea, China and Vietnam; plus an option to purchase tablets at $10.01. 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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Digital Inclusion

Kate Forscey: Biden’s Broadband Plan Begs the Question, If We Build it, Will Consumers Really Come?

One of the biggest problems with getting broadband access to all Americans is not just deployment but adoption.

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Author of this Expert Opinion is Kate Forscey, founder of KRF Strategies LLC

One good thing came out of the pandemic: Politicians across America have finally recognized that Internet access in 2022 is not a luxury, it is a necessity.  And Congress stepped up to the plate and passed the bipartisan Infrastructure, Investment, and Job Act, dedicating more money to closing the digital divide than ever before.

The recipe for achieving ubiquitous broadband requires three things: deployment, affordability, and adoption. For the past couple of decades, however, the U.S. has taken a “Field of Dreams” approach that ignores the last element. Our government approach’s operating assumption is “if you build the network, consumers will use it.” The data show that simply isn’t the case.

One of the biggest problems with getting broadband access to all Americans is not just deployment but adoption of the technology. Household income, region, race, and even the pandemic all play intertwined roles.

study by NTCA in just the past year showed that broadband adoption in areas where it is available dips from 99% in the age range from 18-29 to 75% in older demographics. Lack of adoption is also linked to level of education, from 71% in less than high school education to 98% in college graduates. The fact remains that getting Americans connected hinges on a lack of digital literacy and awareness, which runs the gamut from not understanding the technology itself to not realizing the program is there in the first place.

So when the National Telecommunications and Information Administration released its rules for the Broadband, Equity, Access, and Deployment Program on May 13th, there was a bipartisan breath of relief that the ball is rolling.

The Biden Administration is following the same tired playbook in focusing on buildout

Unfortunately, a closer analysis suggests the Biden Administration is following the same, tired playbook by placing the primary focus on buildout. The BEAD Program makes $42.45 billion available for broadband via grants to the States. States must prioritize buildout in unserved areas before moving on to underserved areas (or at least show that they have a plan to get access to an unserved area). The discussion of “non-deployment activities” for spurring adoption is short and relatively vague, almost like an afterthought.

Here’s one problem: States are not homogenous in terms of unserved areas. States like Kansas and West Virginia have significant (largely rural) unserved areas, while states like Maryland, Connecticut, or Florida have few.  So NTIA’s focus on broadband deployment means that States with fewer unserved areas are likely to focus their spending on additional buildout in areas that are already served (i.e., overbuilding), which is inefficient and likely unnecessary. After all, why spend scarce dollars to build out more in areas that already have broadband? Such an approach ignores the adoption prong of a successful broadband plan.

We need to adjust how we think of our priorities. Instead of implementing a field-of-dreams broadband plan, policymakers should ask themselves, if broadband is laid using federal infrastructure funding, but no one elects to adopt it, what have we accomplished? Probably nothing.

States don’t need to follow the NTIA’s lead and focus exclusively on deployment

The good news for States with fewer unserved areas is that they don’t need to follow NTIA’s lead and focus exclusively on deployment. The rules allow them to use federal funds on adoption projects  once they bring affordable broadband to all unserved areas. Education, outreach, and digital literacy are paramount in furthering Congress’s bipartisan goals. States should give more priority to educating consumers via digital equity programs (e.g., digital literacy education, broadband sign-up assistance, and remote learning facilities) once they have reached the unserved.

It’s time for States to formalize programs to Get Out The Adoption. States should hire people to knock on doors and leave pamphlets that let low-income Americans, minority and Tribal Americans, and veterans know there is a subsidy program available to them, how to apply, what the services are, and how to get access (and plus–that’s job creation!).

States should provide pop-ups like knock-off Genius bars in neighborhoods with historically low adoption rates where people can go to get help with devices or troubleshoot their newly acquired access. States should teach new users how to practice good cyber-hygiene; show them how telehealth can make their lives easier. States should create programs to educate new users about things a lot of those of us who work online every day take for granted as obvious.

Any funding program designed to bridge the digital divide needs to account for deployment, affordability, and adoption. And it is a fundamental economic principle—the more people see the value proposition and the less intimidated they are in using the technology, the more likely they are to adopt the technology. This cannot be an “if you build it, they will come.” We need to make the case for why we’re doing all of this in the first place. If it’s really worth $42.45 billion, then let’s make it so.

Kate Forscey is a contributing fellow for the Digital Progress Institute and principal and founder of KRF Strategies LLC. She has served as senior technology policy advisor for Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo and policy counsel at Public Knowledge. 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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Digital Inclusion

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel Emphasizes 100 Percent Broadband Adoption

‘It’s about making sure wireless connections are available in 100 percent of rural America,’ said the chairwoman.

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Photo of Kelley Dunne, CEO of AmeriCrew, leading panel on workforce issues at the Rural Wireless Infrastructure Summit by Drew Clark

PARK CITY, Utah, June 28, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission is making progress towards bringing “affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to 100 percent of the country,” Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said at the Rural Wireless Infrastructure Summit here on Tuesday.

Rosenworcel pointed to the $65 billion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act now being deployed across the country, with a particular focus on unconnected rural and tribal areas.

Although the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration will take the lead with these funds, the FCC’s new broadband coverage maps will be important in implementing state digital equity plans.

In her remarks, Rosenworcel also discussed how the upcoming 2.5 GigaHertz spectrum auction will involve licensing spectrum primarily to rural areas.

At the July FCC open meeting, said Rosenworcel, the agency is scheduled to establish a new program to help enhance wireless competition. It is called the Enhanced Competition Incentive Program.

The program aims to build incentives for existing carriers to build opportunities for smaller carriers and tribal nations through leasing or partitioning spectrum. Existing carriers will be rewarded with longer license terms, extensions on build-out obligations, and more flexibility in construction requirements.

“It’s about making sure wireless connections are available in 100 percent of rural America,” she said.

She also indicated her commitment to work with Congress to fund the FCC’s “rip and replace” program to reimburse many rural operators’ transitions from Chinese-manufactured telecommunications equipment. She also touted the role that open radio access networks can plan in more secure telecommunications infrastructure.

In other news at the conference, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr addressed the role of funding broadband operations in rural America, the challenges of workforce training, and ensuring that rural carriers have access to high-cost universal service support.

In a session moderated by AmeriCrew CEO Kelley Dunne, panelists from the U.S. Labor Department, the Wireless Infrastructure Association and Texas A&M Extension Education Services addressed the need to offer a vocational career path for individuals for whom a four-year degree may not be the right choice. AmeriCrew helps U.S. military veterans obtain careers in building fiber, wireless and electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark contributed to this report.

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