It has been over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic began. This crisis has shined a light on many injustices, including unequal access to broadband internet for underserved communities. Latinx and other underserved communities need policymakers to work with private companies to bridge this “digital divide” as a matter of justice and equality.
Most people have relied on high-speed broadband internet to make it through the past year. Work, school, and family life have shifted online. But millions, especially in underserved communities, haven’t been able to shift with it because they don’t have high-speed internet in their homes. A staggering 22 percent of Blacks and 31 percent of Latinxs lack broadband access, nearly twice as high as the percentage of whites.
Because of this gap, Latinx and other underserved communities are far more likely to struggle economically, educationally, and socially. The critical nature of broadband has been made clear in this pandemic – broadband is a pathway to economic security and advancement. In addition, there are major public health concerns for those who do not have broadband access. For example, broadband internet is essential to telemedicine, and without access, health care is often out of reach. Telemedicine has grown significantly during the pandemic and its efficiency and convenience suggests that it is here to stay. However, without broadband, the Latinx community is at risk of missing out in this healthcare revolution. In some states, confirmed cases of COVID-19 among the Latinx community make up more than four times their share of the population. Broadband internet is crucial to ensuring underserved communities obtain quality health care.
There have been many efforts to close this gap and ensure equal access for underserved communities. Most notably, private companies have invested $1.7 trillion to connect as many people as possible to broadband internet. But private investment cannot accomplish everything. It must be strengthened with support from policymakers to ensure every community gets connected and included. Without stronger action by policymakers, millions of Latinxs will continue to be excluded.
ALLvanza has long advocated for common-sense policies that will bridge the digital divide for Latinxs in both rural and urban settings. In 2021, there are two key areas where policymakers can focus:
Sadly, 14.5 million Americans still have no access to high-speed broadband. Nearly 80% are in rural areas, and about 20% of rural communities are people of color. There are also about 990 majority Latinx rural communities nationwide. One example is Chimayo, New Mexico. It’s about 90 percent Latinx. Barely 2 in 5 residents have broadband access.
The biggest barrier to broadband internet access in towns like Chimayo is distance. In cities, a single utility pole can connect multiple homes. In rural areas, the reverse is true: A single home or business can require dozens or evens hundreds of utility poles. This makes it much more expensive to roll out broadband internet, which is why so many rural communities still lack access.
Policymakers can solve this problem by paving the way to make it affordable and faster to expand broadband. ALLvanza has called on the Federal Communications Commission to update the rules around “pole attachments,” which can speed up broadband deployment projects. The FCC has already taken some positive steps to promote better and fairer cost-sharing between utility pole owners and broadband providers, but more needs to be done. We hope more action by the FCC and other policymakers is on the way.
Modernizing government programs and reducing bureaucratic burdens will also enable private companies to use their resources efficiently and prioritize unserved areas. With the FCC preparing to give $20 billion in grants for broadband deployment, the goal should be to ensure that taxpayer funding goes as far as possible. The further it goes, the more rural Latinx communities will be connected to broadband and the bright future it brings.
In both rural and urban areas, many Latinxs have yet to adopt broadband, even if it is available to them. There are many reasons for this reality, including affordability issues. Whatever the reason, the fact is that internet usage is about 10% lower for Latinxs than for whites.
While private companies have offered programs that make broadband more affordable, policymakers must step up with action of their own. The most important step is to create a modern federal support program targeted to households with the biggest need.
A support program should be based on three principles:
- First, it should provide a benefit directly to consumers. Just as the SNAP program enables families to purchase the food that’s best for them, a similar program for internet would empower families to buy the broadband service and equipment that meets their needs.
- Second, it should be funded on a regular basis by Congress. Current programs depend on user fees, yet this approach hurts low-income families and is unstable. With consistent federal funding, more underserved communities could benefit.
- Third, it should encourage participation from a wide number of private companies. This requires rolling back outdated regulations that no longer serve a useful purpose. Doing so would drive down costs and increase choice.
A program built around these principles would go a long way toward bringing broadband internet into more homes. But helping people purchase broadband isn’t the only area where policymakers can act. It’s just as important to address two additional issues:
- Digital literacy. Some undeserved communities do not realize the benefits that broadband brings or have concerns about how it will affect their privacy and safety. Investing in educational efforts would show more families how much they have to gain.
- Additional costs. Many families haven’t purchased broadband because they face financial challenges in other areas. Some do not have computers. Others struggle to afford rent or maintain a consistent living situation. Tackling such challenges will also make it easier for underserved communities to choose to subscribe to broadband internet.
The time to act is now. Every Latinx and person from underserved communities who lacks broadband internet is losing out and being left farther and farther behind. Policymakers in Congress and the FCC can deepen their work with private companies to promote equal access to high-speed internet. The sooner the digital divide is bridged, the closer this country will move toward greater equality and justice.