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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.

Broadband Breakfast is a decade-old news organization based in Washington that is building a community of interest around broadband policy and internet technology, with a particular focus on better broadband infrastructure, the politics of privacy and the regulation of social media. Learn more about Broadband Breakfast.

Digital Inclusion

Infrastructure Bill Supports Digital Inclusion, Says Advocacy Group

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes billions for states to expand digital inclusion efforts.

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Screenshot of Amy Huffman

WASHINGTON, December 10, 2021 – National Digital Inclusion Association Policy Director Amy Huffman explicated the role of the recent federal infrastructure legislation – and its support for digital inclusion and digital equity – in a Tuesday webinar.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allocates $42.5 billion in the Broadband Equity and Deployment program. IIJA also allocates $2.75 billion for the Digital Equity Act.

The Digital Equity Act funds are designed to help improve states and local governments’ digital inclusion efforts. The federal government recognizes that states, local governments, and practitioners “who already are embedded in your communities are the trusted resources in your communities that you all are the best ones to do digital inclusion,” Huffman said.

“You’ll see that ethos has made its way throughout all of the both the Digital Equity Act and the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment program” of the broader legislation.

The Digital Equity Act codifies the definitions of “digital equity” and “digital inclusion.” Digital equity is our “goal,” said Huffman.

“That’s what we’re trying to achieve, we want to make sure that we live in a nation where everyone, every individual and community has the capacity for full participation in our society, democracy, and economy,” she said. Digital inclusion involves the programs, policies and tools that help the nation achieve a digitally equitable state.

Indeed, the Digital Equity Act contains two programs: the State Digital Equity program and the Competitive Grant program.

The Act also creates three grant funds. Administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the Commerce Department, the digital equity competitive grant program will supply money for states to do digital equity work.

The program is split into planning grants and capacity grants: Planning grants help states create digital equity plans, while capacity grants give money to states to implement those plans.

The Broadband Equity Access and Deployment program gives block grants to states for broadband infrastructure deployment and other digital inclusion activities.

Each state will receive at least $100 million, and use an additional formula for determining how much additional funding states receive. Eligible grantees are all U.S. states, Puerto Rico, and U.S. territories. Subgrantees can be cooperatives such as telephone or electric member cooperatives, non-profit organizations, and public-private partnerships.

Each state’s plan funded by these grant programs must create “measurable objectives for documenting and promoting various digital inclusion activities that will advance the covered populations pursuit of digital equity and closing of these barriers,” Huffman said.

“The states are already in charge of so economic development workforce development health outcomes, etc. so they want the state to think holistically, about how they’re doing around digital equity will help them achieve their other goals.”

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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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