Congressional Hearing on Broadband Equity Highlights Need for Long-Term Solutions To Address Affordability, Accessibility, and Digital Inclusion

The pandemic has shown that our connectivity needs are greater than ever, and now is the time to act.

For over a year, the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to put a spotlight on the critical role broadband plays in our democracy and economy. Now more than ever, households are relying on connectivity to meet nearly every aspect of daily life like teleworking, virtual learning or seeing a doctor through telemedicine services. But the pandemic has also exposed many of the long-standing disparities in connectivity, where millions of households still lack broadband. The cost of a monthly service, lack of connected devices, and digital readiness skills pose significant barriers that keep marginalized communities from adopting broadband. With broadband taking on even greater importance, members of Congress have made it clear that access to affordable, reliable connectivity is a top priority where meaningful legislation is needed to address the digital divide.

Last week, the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing entitled “Broadband Equity: Addressing Disparities in Access and Affordability,” in which subcommittee members examined the issues contributing to a lack of high-speed broadband services in rural and urban areas across the country and reasons why broadband remains unaffordable for tens of millions of households.

Witnesses Joi Cheney of National Urban League, Chris Lewis of Public Knowledge, and Francella Ochillo of Next Century Cities all put forward thoughtful ideas and provided experience-based insight into how to address the parallel problems of access, affordability, and digital inclusion. All three witnesses called attention to the digital divide’s disproportionate impact on people of color, emphasizing the fact that only 66% of African Americans and 61% of Latinx communities have broadband at home, while certain urban areas still lack equitable infrastructure.

Democrats on the Communications and Technology subcommittee (and a couple of off-subcommittee members) highlighted different aspects of the digital divide in their questioning. Issues such as digital redlining, pricing transparency, municipal networks, minimum speeds, inaccurate mapping, and more that illustrate the full scope of our country’s connectivity issues were brought to the forefront of the conversation.

The hearing made clear that affordability and accessibility are not partisan issues. Even the Republican witness, George S. Ford of the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal & Economic Public Policy Studies, acknowledged there will always be an affordability problem.

With the review of the disparities in access and affordability came solutions. Committee members elevated current legislation aimed at solving some of the problems examined in the hearing. Among the bills mentioned was Majority Whip Jim Clyburn’s (D-SC) Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, which authorizes $80 billion for broadband infrastructure deployment and provides an additional $6 billion for the recently launched Emergency Broadband Benefit program, a temporary program that provides low-income households up to a $50 per month discount ($75 on Tribal lands) to purchase broadband services. The legislation also encompasses the Digital Equity Act, which authorizes over $1 billion to establish grant programs that support digital inclusion activities. Common Cause has endorsed Whip Clyburn’s bill, and views it as a significant step to address all aspects of the digital divide.

While the Emergency Broadband Benefit program is an important first step that will help connect millions of low-income households, the hearing made abundantly clear the need for a multi-faceted, long-term solution to address broadband affordability and digital inclusion.

One idea that has gained a lot of traction, and received some attention during the hearing, is to use spectrum auction proceeds to establish a Digital Equity Fund dedicated to low-income affordability and adoption. Prior auctions of our public airwaves have generated tens of billions of dollars in proceeds and billions of dollars in revenue for the federal government. Typically the revenue from these auctions is deposited into the U.S. Treasury and attributed to general revenue in the U.S. Budget. Allocating a portion of this revenue into a Digital Equity Fund could help build a sustainable funding mechanism that would support a long-term broadband benefit program for low-income households.

As was oft-repeated by witnesses and members alike, digital inclusion is an important piece of the puzzle. Not only is it important to help people afford broadband, but it is also necessary to ensure they have the skills to meaningfully use communications technologies to participate in modern society. Funding to address accessibility and affordability must center the consumer and be accompanied by funding for digital equity, getting money into the hands of trusted community organizations who understand people’s specific digital literacy needs.

In addition to passing the Digital Equity Act, Congress can take steps to establish an Office of Digital Equity at the Department of Commerce to help coordinate digital inclusion strategies, and create  a National Digital Navigators Corps to conduct digital readiness training and outreach in non-adopting communities.

The pandemic has shown that our connectivity needs are greater than ever, and now is the time to act. In a recent speech by President Biden on the American Jobs Plan, he remarked that connecting Americans with high-speed internet will help “our kids and businesses succeed in the 21st-century economy.” And he put Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of the effort to connect millions of Americans, signaling the importance of the issue. As infrastructure legislation moves through Congress, we need to figure out how to ensure a long-term broadband affordability plan is a part of it. To quote Rep. Donald McEachin (D-VA), “reliable, affordable high-speed broadband service in this economy and the economy of the future is really the fourth utility, not unlike water, gas, and electricity,” and it’s time for our political leaders to treat it like one.