Despite claims that states can close the digital divide in five years, digital equity is a long-term problem that requires long-term solutions, and states must plan accordingly.
In summer 2023, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) will begin distributing hundreds of millions, and in some cases billions, of funding to states as part of the $42 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program. Coupled with the $14 billion Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), and $2.75 billion for digital equity, the broadband programs of 2021’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) are poised to make significant headway in achieving nationwide digital equity.
Expectedly, states are busy creating and staffing broadband offices in anticipation of the BEAD and digital equity monies. Blinded by a nationwide broadband fever, however, some broadband leaders have proclaimed that states will entirely close, bridge or eliminate the digital divide in the coming years. While understandable, such rhetoric is dangerous for two reasons.
First, it positions the “digital divide” as a binary to be solved: Either you are connected, or you are not. Such thinking fails to capture the complexities of digital equity, which includes availability, affordability, adoption, literacy and skill development, and hardware. Each requires attention before we can lay claim to solving the digital divide, and $65 billion — the amount earmarked for broadband in the IIJA — is not enough to achieve such lofty goals.
Second, claiming we can end the digital divide masks the real cause of digital exclusion: inequality. Look at the communities most likely to be digitally excluded: low-income households, Black and Latinx communities, tribal communities, rural communities, older adults, those with disabilities, those with only a high school degree, and newcomers. These are the communities already facing systemic and endemic social, political and economic marginalization. For instance, 38 percent of Southern rural Black families lack broadband, compared to only 22 percent of Southern rural white families, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. To actually end the digital divide, as scholar Jan van Dijk argues, we need to end inequality. A crucial goal in which digital inclusion certainly factors, but one that will take more than five years.
Broadband leaders need to stop claiming we can end digital divides in the next half-decade. Instead of claiming to cure the digital divide as a doctor might an acute case of tonsillitis, state broadband leaders should approach digital exclusion as a chronic condition that requires dynamic, flexible, long-term responses and planning. Six issues require long-term planning and should be addressed in every state’s NTIA-mandated five-year broadband and digital equity plan:
1. REMOTE CONNECTIVITY
The BEAD program is substantive, but it is not enough to connect everybody to high-speed, affordable, future-proof networks. This is particularly true of the most geographically remote areas, where deployment costs escalate exponentially. Broadband expert Mike Conlow, for instance, writes how the cost to serve remote households in Kansas may exceed $16,000 per house. Kansas requires $2.4 billion for connectivity alone but is slated to receive only $435 million in BEAD funding. State broadband leaders need to plan to serve the most remote of us, and this will mean looking beyond BEAD.
2. OPERATIONAL EXPENSES
The BEAD program covers capital expenses (capex) for the deployment of broadband networks (preferably fiber optics). It does not cover operational expenses (opex). This is particularly salient for rural, remote and tribal providers, who serve communities that cannot provide the necessary financial returns to ensure viability. Broadband in these communities will always be a “market failure.” We can address this gap by resolving the long-standing debate over the FCC’s Universal Service Fund which offers opex funding for “high-cost areas.” We must also look beyond the private market and embrace community options, such as municipal and regional networks, and cooperatives.
The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) is a $14 billion program managed by the FCC that provides $30 per month to low-income households for broadband ($75 per month on tribal lands). While the FCC is encouraging eligible households to register, the money will dry up sometime in 2024. As a result, families who are finally able to participate in the digital world may drop off the digital map. States and Congress must ensure low-income families remain connected post-ACP.
The FCC recently released its long-awaited and seriously revised national broadband map, offering granular, address-level data. Within days of its release, however, experts and states critiqued the map for once again failing to capture the extent of un- and under-connectivity in rural, tribal and urban areas alike. The FCC is encouraging parties to challenge the map where they see discrepancies. It is evident, however, that both national and state broadband maps will require constant updating, and this requires long-term planning.
There have also been numerous reports of digital redlining, or the deliberate withholding of high-speed connectivity to low-income and minority neighborhoods. The practice is so egregious that the IIJA ordered the FCC to review digital discrimination.* The FCC and states must address digital discrimination, and this can only be done with reliable maps.
Technological innovation will always arrive first in wealthy, urban areas, thus leaving low-income, rural and tribal populations wanting. Think of the rollout of millimeter wave 5G, which occurred exclusively in urban areas, or the price tag on new hardware. Such is the unequal nature of neoliberal capitalism. To realize digital equity, states need to ensure marginalized communities have access to more than just “good enough” technologies.
6. LITERACY AND SKILLS
Digital literacy and skill development are cradle-to-grave issues because digital needs change over time and technology. CNET, for instance, recently reported on how older adults in rural areas are particularly disenfranchised when it comes to digital education. When developing digital equity plans, state broadband leaders must think long term to ensure their constituents have the training and confidence needed to take advantage of their newfound connectivity.
The challenge for state broadband leaders is to think simultaneously short term — IIJA — and long term — post-IIJA. Long-term planning is necessary to achieve what Francella Ochillo, executive director of Next Century Cities, calls “sustainable broadband.” We cannot solve, end or close the digital divide in the next five years and it is crucial that state broadband leaders stop making this claim. Until we eradicate inequality, we will not end digital exclusion. But states can get so much closer to digital equity if they think sustainably.
Christopher Ali, PhD, holds the Pioneers Chair in Telecommunications and is Professor of Telecommunications in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications at Penn State University. A scholar who specializes in broadband policy, planning and deployment, he is the author of the book Farm Fresh Broadband: The Politics of Rural Connectivity (MIT Press, 2021), has testified before the Senate Commerce Committee, and written for the New York Times, The Hill, Washington Monthly, Realtor Magazine, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, among many other publications.
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