President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill offers an unprecedented opportunity to fulfill the dream of universal connectivity and digital literacy.
We must make sure that those on the unfortunate side of the digital divide aren’t left behind yet again. To translate this generational chance into transformational change, we’ll need a smarter understanding of the challenge — and the discipline not to waste these precious dollars on false promises or political patronage.
We’ve learned the hard way that high hopes and ambitious investments aren’t sufficient for success. The 2009 infrastructure program included $7.2 billion for broadband but wasted huge chunks through cronyism and redundancy — including wiring well-to-do suburban neighborhoods that already had broadband service.
This time, implementation must be guided by rigorous research and on-the-ground partnerships and perspectives. It is fiscally irresponsible and morally indefensible to squander limited public funds building duplicative networks for those with fast options in place, including the 88% of American households who already have access to ultrafast gigabit internet speeds.
This holds even for municipally owned and operated broadband networks, which have failed to deliver on their promise in one city after another; political capital should not be wasted on this ideological pipe dream.
Policymakers should put instead aside preconceptions and drill deep into the data about the encouraging but unfinished success of public- and private-sector programs subsidizing broadband subscriptions.
The most recent data demonstrates that 97.5% of Americans live in neighborhoods reached by broadband networks. But only 77% of all Americans subscribe. Digital inequalities reflect broader racial and economic inequalities where only 71% of African Americans and 65% of Hispanics have home broadband, as do 57% of low-income people. This indicates that instead of spending limited dollars on duplicative projects in areas that already have fast networks in place, we instead need a laserlike focus to ensure that low-income urban families who have not yet subscribed, do so.
That’s the goal of the infrastructure bill’s groundbreaking $14.2 billion Affordable Connectivity Program, which now offers every family earning up to twice the federal poverty level up to $30 per month to buy broadband service.
If glossy brochures and TV spots were enough to convince folks to sign up for the Information Age, the ACP’s success would be preordained. But since folks without online connections are more skeptical and harder to reach, we need old-fashioned person-to-person persuasion.
We need to spark interest and curiosity one neighbor at a time.
Trusted community leaders, including clergy, educators, and neighborhood activists, should be tapped to evangelize the program to neighbors in local churches, barbershops, laundromats, and small businesses. People already participating in the program can serve as neighborhood ambassadors, explaining how internet access has improved their lives.
Executed properly, the ACP could take its place in the tradition of social safety-net programs providing all Americans with basic levels of nutrition, housing and health care. We have a historic opportunity to make the Information Age an era of equity.
Let’s make the most of this moment.
Allison Clark, Ph.D. has spent 15 years as a researcher and advocate for expanding digital access and literacy. She is the founder of Black and Blue Research. Clark is a Volusia County native and lives in Orange County.