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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

Broadband Breakfast Interview With Michael Baker’s Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel

Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the bipartisan infrastructure law.

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Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment grant program under the bipartisan infrastructure law.

In this interview with Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark, Michael Baker International Broadband Planning Consultants Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel go into detail about the role of Digital Equity Act plans in state broadband programs.

Michael Baker International, a leading provider of engineering and consulting services, including geospatial, design, planning, architectural, environmental, construction and program management, has been solving the world’s most complex challenges for over 80 years.

Its legacy of expertise, experience, innovation and integrity is proving essential in helping numerous federal, state and local navigate their broadband programs with the goal of solving the Digital Divide.

The broadband team at Michael Baker is filling a need that has existed since the internet became publicly available. Essentially, Internet Service Providers have historically made expansions to new areas based on profitability, not actual need. And pricing has been determined by market competition without real concern for those who cannot afford service.

In the video interview, Snerling and Garfinkel discuss how, with Michael Baker’s help, the federal government is encourage more equitable internet expansion through specific programs under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The company guides clients to incorporate all considerations, not just profitability, into the project: Compliance with new policies, societal impact metrics and sustainability plans are baked into the Michael Baker consultant solution so that, over time, these projects will have a tremendous positive impact.

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Digital Inclusion

Historically Underrepresented Communities Urged to Take Advantage of BEAD Planning

BEAD requirements a unique opportunity for underrepresented communities to be involved in broadband builds.

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Photo of Mara Reardon, NTIA’s deputy director of public engagement

WASHINGTON, January 25, 2023 – Underrepresented communities are being urged to take advantage of the opportunity brought by the billions in funding coming from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration by actively planning for the money being allocated by June 30.

The $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program is a unique opportunity for historically underrepresented communities to be heard in critical digital equity conversations, said experts at a United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce event Tuesday.

“For once, they are being included in the implementation process,” said Mara Reardon, the NTIA’s deputy director of public engagement, adding this is a “unique opportunity.” It is essential that communities take advantage of this by approaching state broadband offices, drafting broadband expansion plans, and showing up in commenting processes, Reardon urged.

Furthermore, historically underrepresented communities can make themselves available as contractors by subscribing to state mailing lists, being aware of requests going out, and participating in the state bidding process, said Reardon.

The notice of funding outlines several requirements for inclusion of historically underrepresented groups in the planning process, Reardon reiterated. Specifically, it mandates that eligible entities include underrepresented stakeholders in the process of developing their required five-year plans. This type of requirement is unique to federal infrastructure grants, said Reardon.

Due to the nature of the grant requirements, states must take necessary affirmative steps to ensure diverse groups are used in contracting and planning, added Lynn Follansbee of telecom trade association USTelecom. This means that projects will be outsourced to various providers and suppliers and that the work will be broken into pieces to involve as many groups as possible, said Follansbee.

The NTIA is making an effort to ensure that all community members are heard in critical issues, even establishing the office of public engagement for that purpose. It also said it has awarded $304 million in planning grants for broadband infrastructure builds to all states and Washington D.C. by the end of 2022.

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Digital Inclusion

CES 2023: Congressional Oversight, Digital Equity Priorities for New Mexico Senator

Sen. Lujan once again voiced concern that the FCC’s national broadband map contains major inaccuracies.

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Photo of Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., in February 2018 by Keith Mellnick used with permission

LAS VEGAS, January 6, 2023 – Sen. Ben Ray Lujan on Friday endorsed “oversight at every level” of executive agencies’ broadband policies and decried service providers that perpetuate digital inequities.

Lujan appeared before an audience at the Consumer Electronics Show with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., to preview the tech-policy priorities of the 118th Congress.

Among Washington legislators, Senators had CES 2023 to themselves: Representatives from the House of Representatives were stuck in Washington participating on Friday in the 12th, 13th and 14th votes for House Speaker.

Congress allocated $65 billion to broadband projects in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, the bulk of which, housed in the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, is yet to be disbursed. The IIJA funds are primarily for infrastructure, but billions are also available for digital equity and affordability projects.

Several federal legislators, including Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., have called for close supervision of Washington’s multitude of broadband-related programs. At CES on Friday, Warner argued that previous tranches of broadband funding have been poorly administered, and Lujan once again voiced concern that the Federal Communications Commission’s national broadband map, whose data will be used to allocate BEAD funds, contains major inaccuracies.

Affordable, high-speed broadband is now a necessity, stated Warner. Lujan argued that policy must crafted to ensure all communities have access to connectivity.

“The [Federal Communications Commission] is working on some of the digital equity definitions right now…. I don’t want to see definitions that create loopholes that people can hide behind to not connect communities,” the New Mexico senator said, emphasizing the importance of “the digital literacy to be able take advantage of what this new connection means, so that people can take advantage of what I saw today [at CES].”

At a Senate hearing in December, Lujan grilled executives from industry trade associations over allegations of digital discrimination.

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