Op-ed: We have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to bridge the digital divide. Let’s seize it


Marcos Vilar is executive director of Alianza for Progress. - PHOTO COURTESY OF ALIANZA FOR PROGRESS
  • photo courtesy of Alianza for Progress
  • Marcos Vilar is executive director of Alianza for Progress.

President Biden’s infrastructure program sets forth a bold vision that matches his promises to build back better. Not only will the President’s plan rebuild the nation’s highways and bridges, but defining broadband access as vital infrastructure, could also bridge the digital divide between the 77 percent of Americans who have home broadband and the 23 percent who don’t. This is an opportunity that will be well received in our community and result in higher support for Biden’s plans for our country.

The plan proposes massive federal investments to expand rural broadband and greenlights overbuilding projects for other communities that already have broadband available. While noble, I believe the plan could also be improved by incorporating an idea that’s been left on the cutting-room floor: a permanent subsidy to help hard-pressed families subscribe to broadband.

As Congress translates the dream of digital inclusion into the details of legislation, our representatives should incorporate that additional change into the President’s proposal to focus on the most vulnerable and disconnected communities.

Thankfully, we already have a model for how to do this, and proof that it works. In December, to help economically vulnerable families stay connected during COVID-19, Congress created an Emergency Broadband Benefit, providing up to $50 for high-speed internet subscriptions. This was a short-term program but could and should be made permanent.

Here are the facts: 96 percent of Americans, including 99 percent of urban residents, have access to broadband networks, yet only 77 percent subscribe. These non-subscribers overwhelmingly lack the money and the know-how – not the infrastructure – to connect to high-speed internet. They are overwhelmingly in our Hispanic and Black communities.

Digital exclusion both results from and reinforces racial and economic inequalities. Thirty-five percent — more than one out of every three! — Hispanic adults and 29 percent of Black adults do not have home broadband connections, according to data compiled by Pew Research, compared to 20 percent of White adults.

The problem is even more acute for families having trouble making rent, paying utility bills, and putting food on the table, as broadband subscriptions may seem like a luxury to them. Forty-three percent of adults in families earning less than $30,000 a year lack home broadband connections, compared to just 8 percent of those making more than $75,000.

Beyond the numbers, we saw what it means for a household to lack broadband during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. From stories of people who could not access unemployment benefits in Florida because they did not have a reliable connection to the state website to the heartbreaking reality of children who missed out on a full year of schooling simply because they did not have internet access at home, those without broadband fared the worst in 2020.

Measured against these stark realities, it becomes clear why adding broadband subsidies to low-income families is a must, not only to benefit those families, but to make sure the rest of President Biden’s vision can become a reality.

Congress can do this by wisely designing a $100 billion broadband package that can tackle every aspect of our digital divide: broadband infrastructure in unconnected rural areas, a subsidy program to ensure service is affordable for those in need, and digital literacy programs to close the skills gap.

Congress should improve on President Biden’s broadband infrastructure package to “build back better” by proposing a Permanent Broadband Benefit as indispensable infrastructure for the Information Age. 

Marcos Vilar is executive director of Alianza for Progress, which conducts voter education, civic engagement and issue advocacy in Florida’s Puerto Rican diaspora and broader Latino communities.

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