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Digital Inclusion

W. Antoni Sinkfield: To Succeed in 21st Century, Communities Need to Get Connected Now

One of the primary responsibilities of being a faith leader is to listen to your community and understand its problems.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Reverend W. Antoni Sinkfield, Associate Dean for Community Life at Wesley Theological Seminary.

One of the primary responsibilities of being a faith leader is to listen to your community, understand its problems, and provide support in challenging times. Particularly during the pandemic, it has been hard not to notice that my parishioners, and folks across the country, are divided into two groups: those with access to the internet, and those without.

In 2022, digital inclusion is still something we strive for in poor and rural areas throughout America. The lack of reliable internet access is an enormous disadvantage to so many people in all facets of their lives.

To fully participate in today’s society, all people, no matter who they are and no matter where they live, must have access to the internet. Think of the remote learning every child had to experience when schools were closed, and the challenges that families faced when they didn’t have access to a quality connection.

It’s a question of plain fairness.

Politicians have been talking for decades about bringing high-speed internet access to everyone, however many families continue to be left behind. More than 42 million people across the country lack affordable, reliable broadband connections, and as many as 120 million people who cannot get online are stuck with slow service that does not allow them to take advantage of everything the internet has to offer.

People of color are disproportionately affected by lack of broadband access

Lack of broadband disproportionately affects communities of color, as well: 35 percent of Americans of Latino descent and 29 percent of African-Americans do not have a broadband connection at home.

Every person in rural towns, urban neighborhoods, and tribal communities needs and deserves equal and full economic and educational opportunities. Studies show that students without home access to the internet are less likely to attend college and face a digital skills gap equivalent to three years’ worth of schooling. Small businesses, which are the cornerstone of rural and urban communities alike, need broadband to reach their customers and provide the service they expect.

Simply put, having access to the internet in every community is vital to its ability to succeed in the 21st century.

Fortunately, we have an opportunity to take major steps toward a solution. Last year, Congress passed President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which provides $65 billion to expand broadband access and affordability. It is essential that we use this money to connect as many unserved and underserved communities as we can – and as quickly as we can.

Different places need different options to bridge the digital divide

As we bridge the digital divide, we must listen to those who have been left behind and make sure that we deploy solutions that fit their needs. Different places need different options – so it’s important that all voices are heard, and the technology that works best for the community is made readily available.

All people need access to broadband to learn, work, shop, pay bills, and get efficient healthcare.

When I talk to my parishioners, they speak about how much of their lives have transitioned online and are frustrated about not having reliable access. They do not care about the nuances of how we bring broadband to everyone. They just want to have it now – and understandably so.

This means that we must explore all solutions possible to provide high-speed broadband with the connection and support they need, when they need it, regardless of where they live.

Now is the time to meet those struggling where they are, stop dreaming about bridging the divide, and just get it done. Our government has a rare opportunity to fix an enormous problem, using money already approved for the purpose. Let’s make sure they do so in a manner that works for the communities they’re trying to help.

Rev. W. Antoni Sinkfield, Ph.D., serves as Associate Dean for Community Life at Wesley Theological Seminary, and is an ordained Itinerate Elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. 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

Debra Berlyn: Creating a Path to Close the Digital Divide for Older Adults

Programs like the ACP and technologies like fixed wireless can play a key role in connecting older adults.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Debra Berlyn, Executive Director of Project GOAL.

Today, three-year old Max wants to get on the family computer and see his Grammy on the other side of the country, but she could be one of the approximately 34 percent of those age 65 and older who still aren’t connected to the internet at home.

When it comes to getting connected to the internet, older adults continue to remain an isolated and unserved demographic across the country. There’s more work that remains to be done to get older adults connected to the internet. It’s time to get creative and expand the effort for broadband everywhere to everyone.

There’s an unprecedented wave of federal funding for broadband expansion on the horizon. The Broadband Equity Access and Deployment effort is underway and will soon roll-out the $42.5 billion allocated by Congress to expand high-speed internet access across all fifty states and U.S. territories.

Pair this with several industry discount programs to choose from and there may finally be a real opportunity to drive broadband access and adoption and start to close the digital divide for older adults.

Affordable broadband

For older adults with the greatest need, there’s one federally funded program that has had a significant impact on connecting the community to broadband: the Affordable Connectivity Program.

Congress appropriated $14.2 billion in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 for the ACP program to provide eligible lower-income households with up to a $30 monthly subsidy. About twenty internet service providers (including large ISPs AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Charter and some smaller providers) offer a high-speed, high-quality internet service plan for no more than $30 dollars per month for those that qualify.

So, for these households leveraging ACP, which include millions of older adults, they apply their monthly $30 benefit to a plan and access the internet, essentially for free.

To date over 17 million households have signed up for ACP. Over 45 percent of ACP subscribers are age 50 years and older, and over 20 percent of the ACP recipient households are age 65 and older.

This program is truly one of the most important programs for assisting those in need and has finally provided the aging community the opportunity to receive the benefits of broadband.

While new qualified households continue to subscribe to ACP, time is running out for available funding of this important program. With the current number of household subscribers and continued growth, it’s estimated that the ACP will run out as early as the first half of 2024. Congress must consider options now for continuing funding for the Affordable Connectivity Program.

The ACP is an essential program for customers who require a subsidy to acquire or retain broadband service. For many others who may live in areas currently unserved or underserved, or who still haven’t adopted broadband service in a community, there are now new technologies for internet growth.

New approaches

One technology has upped the competitive marketplace in the home for consumers: fixed wireless internet service.  Internet service providers such as AT&T and Verizon, and wireless carriers such as T-Mobile, offer customers an alternative for accessing internet service.

It’s a type of 5G or 4G LTE technology to enable fixed broadband access using radio frequencies (instead of the cables used to wire traditional wired fixed-line broadband) from the home.  Fixed wireless internet service has opened a competitive field for internet service in many communities.

Satellite internet is another interesting approach for the provision of service. Starlink has offered high speed, low latency internet, primarily in limited rural areas, but upfront costs can be on the expensive side. Now, Amazon is entering this market with Project Kuiper to provide fast, affordable broadband service around the world.

It is planning to do this by deploying thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit linked to a global network of antennas, fiber and internet connection points on the ground. Amazon expects to begin delivering broadband connections in late 2024.

The deployment plan has an interesting strategy, with a key Amazon delivery objective of bringing affordable, high-speed connectivity to all consumers. Project Kuiper will offer low-cost and easy-to-install antennas (also known as “terminals) to make the service affordable. The plan can help connect older adults in unserved, and underserved areas of the country, particularly rural communities, and other remote areas without reliable connectivity.

Now, with the ACP offering an opportunity for affordable broadband, the BEAD roll-out, fixed wireless providing competitive broadband services and satellite internet service competition with Project Kuiper on the horizon, we are on the right track to close the digital divide for older adults.

Debra Berlyn is the Executive Director of the Project to Get Older Adults onLine (Project GOAL), which works to promote the adoption of broadband for older adults, and to advance technology applications for the community. She is also president of Consumer Policy Solutions, is on the board of the National Consumers League, and is a board member and senior fellow with the Future of Privacy Forum. 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

Learn How to Speak About Broadband, Say State Directors and Advocates at Connect (X)

Speaking simply will improve community engagement in digital inclusion efforts.

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Photo of Keith Moore of the Minority Business Development Agency, Edyn Rolls of the Oklahoma Broadband Office, Valarry Bullard of the New Jersey Broadband Office, Scott Woods of Broadband Ready

NEW ORLEANS, May 12, 2023 – How we speak about broadband when talking to consumers while deploying digital equity programs is very important, said state broadband directors at a Connect (X) panel on Wednesday.  

Community residents face significant barriers to adoption that may turn them off to programs meant to benefit them, including the Affordable Connectivity Program which subsidizes high-speed internet subscriptions for low-income households. 

These communities have been historically overlooked by governments and do not trust officials to have their best interests at heart, said Courtney Richard of nonprofit affordable housing development corporation, National CORE. 

As state officials, we need to do all we can to connect with the residents and make the experience as comfortable for them as possible, said the Director of the New Jersey Broadband Office Valarry Bullard. For example, instead of saying “broadband,” officials should say “internet.” 

Locally owned businesses and households need to understand how the internet impacts them individually, and our job is to draw that connection for them, Bullard said. “For us, an opportunity is going to be education.”  

Knowing how to speak about broadband with communities that we work in is an essential piece of the puzzle that can serve to complicate the process if not handled well, said Scott Woods, vice president of community engagement and strategic partnership at Ready.net. 

“You can turn off a community by your simple approach,” said Woods. States must go by the overarching notion that the federal government has put broadband deployment in the hands of states because they understand the needs of the communities, he added.  

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Broadband's Impact

Digital Inclusion Requires Localized Approach and Partnerships with Community Members

There can be no standardization of digital equity approaches, agree panelists.

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Photo of Courtney Richard

HOUSTON, May 10, 2023 – Achieving digital inclusion requires a localized approach with states involving trusted members of communities, said panelists at a Broadband Communities event Thursday. 

Each population subset will respond differently to inclusion efforts and, among those subsets, different households will need to address different barriers to adoption, said Courtney Richard of nonprofit affordable housing development corporation, National CORE.  

Standardizing digital inclusion efforts on any level is nearly impossible, agreed Bryan Mauk from PCs for the People. Unserved and underserved communities have specific concerns that service providers and state governments need to understand before deploying to those areas, he said. 

Human, one-on-one interaction with these communities is necessary to both understand their needs and build trust, added Richard. These communities have been historically overlooked by governments and do not trust officials to have their best interests at heart, she said.  

A lack of trust evolves the way in which you educate and approach the residents, said Richard Sherwin, CEO of provider, SpotOn networks. Trust is a critical issue and “has to be done just right.” 

Richard urged service providers and state governments to form relationships and partnerships with those people and institutions that are already trusted in the community. We see more success in areas where partnerships were formed and community anchor institutions are involved, she continued. 

States have increasingly adopted the digital navigator’s program which deploys state employees to communities with the purpose of improving adoption rates by training residents on device usage, said Richard. Messengers are most beneficial when they are members of the community that can mediate the conversation between parties and help communities find solutions that work best for them, she continued. 

These programs require human capital and continuous training of the digital navigators to be up to date on technology advancements, added Mauk. 

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