By: Janet Murguía, President & CEO, UnidosUS
From school and work, to paying bills and seeking telehealth services, reliable internet is a modern necessity—like water and electricity. Consequently, the lack of Internet connectivity has far-reaching implications for equity, racial justice, economic opportunity, healthcare, education, and workforce development, especially for communities of color and low-income communities.
We saw it most acutely when the pandemic hit, when children were forced to transition from the school playground to virtual learning overnight. Those with reliable internet connection likely noticed a difference, but they were still able to continue their education. Those without internet, however, lost their connection, quite literally, to just about every aspect of daily life until school districts were able to distribute hot spots to those in need.
The COVID-19 pandemic proved just how essential internet connectivity is in our daily lives. The time is now to ensure all communities can connect, benefit, and fully participate in today’s digital economy. To do so, we must address the affordability issue that impedes millions.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reports that 14.5 million people still lack access to broadband. And according to the Pew Research Center, more than 1 in 3 Hispanic adults lack broadband access, which has extensive, negative consequences. Online learning is a daily struggle for children without internet, reflected in the widening homework gap that pre-dated the pandemic. Parents without internet miss out on workforce development and career opportunities. Individuals delay or skip necessary, preventive and routine medical care because they cannot access telehealth services.
As a country, we have taken some small steps to address this problem. In December 2020, the FCC took a landmark step in establishing the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBB), which subsidizes broadband service for low-income households. Cost is the single greatest barrier for low-income families getting access, and experts and advocates say subsidy programs are an effective way to tackle the issue of affordability. However, the EBB program will conclude once the funds are exhausted or six months after the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency.
However, the EBB program was not designed as a long-term solution, so to guarantee online access and close the digital divide, the development of a long-term lower-income broadband benefit should be prioritized.
A coalition of more than 40 civil rights organizations and consumer advocacy groups have formed Broadband Equity for All to advocate for such a long-term broadband benefit program. As a member of the coalition, our goal is to advocate for a predictable, sustainable, long-term broadband subsidy to ensure everyone, regardless of economic status or race, has the resources to fully share in the possibilities and opportunities that come with access to the internet. Programs such as the EBB are viable solutions in closing the digital divide and are efficient in providing opportunity for low-income Americans to get online.
Affordable broadband is essential for Latinos and all Americans to have equal access to education, work, healthcare, and civic engagement opportunities. It is also a basic necessity for every community to contribute to our country’s shared prosperity. America is stronger when we are connected, so we must work to close the digital divide once and for all.
Janet Murguía is president and CEO of UnidosUS, formerly the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the nation’s largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization.