More Families Have Broadband Access But the Internet Isn’t Desegregated Yet

Last year, Great School Voices leader Dirk Tillotson urged the nation on his Citizen Ed show Access Denied to pursue an #InternetForAll agenda to get all kids connected to the internet regardless of their families’ ability to pay for internet service provider bills. In times of lockdown, after all, how else are students supposed to learn but online? 

Win after win followed. Ordinary citizens from six major metropolitan areas became #InternetForAll activists via our partners’ Day of Action last year, and thousands more joined in online protest during a summer of pandemic lockdowns. Our allied activists urged FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel to quickly approve funds to schools and libraries to promote broadband connectivity for students at home during the COVID crisis. Generous citizens provided laptops and other devices to New York City and Washington D.C. students to aid in their digital learning during the pandemic. 

Now, thanks to the federal government’s passage of this year’s American Rescue Plan and other infrastructure bills currently being written in Congress, a version of Dirk’s and other digital inclusion activists’ dream is quickly being implemented—and your families and communities are the beneficiaries. 

That’s why Dirk is teaming up with Citizen Ed again for the new show, Desegregate the Internet: Access Granted. We saw enormous wins over the last year in the #InternetForAll movement to build #DigitalInclusion for all students. But the next step is to set families and communities up for success in officially obtaining—and learning how to use—these new digital tools that are finally available to them. 

Watch episode 1 below and spread the word, because, as you’ll learn in the show, everyone’s bills will go down when you get your neighbors to sign up. 

Experts Are ‘Really Excited’

Desegregate the Internet’s first guests were broadband access experts Amy Huffman and John Windhausen, who both expressed pleasant surprise at how far this movement has come over the last 18 months as the COVID-19 pandemic spurred quick action to protect the health of school communities. 

“There’s a lot out there and we’re really excited,” the National Digital Inclusion Alliance’s (NDIA) Huffman said.

Dirk noted that many middle-income families have awakened to the lack of resources for their neighbors since the start of the pandemic. 

“Anyone who’s been alive the last 18 months knows that only a toilet is more important than internet,” he said. “You can’t see your kid’s grades if you don’t have internet. It’s a modern necessity.”

Nor, Dirk said, can you do telehealth, look for a job, or basically anything else without a strong internet connection these days. By barring low-income parents from high-quality internet access in the past, policymakers only perpetuated and worsened these families’ ability to interact with modern society, take care of themselves and their families, learn, or build wealth. Plus many of those lucky enough to have the internet have seen their costs rise and services deteriorate. 

What has been so surprising in the last 18 months is the speed of enacting solutions for these digital inequities across the country. 

What Benefits Are Available? 

Begin with the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit program that was enacted in December 2020, said Windhausen of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition. That allows for monthly subsidies of $50 to $75 (for those on Native American lands) to be given to low-wage people to cover the cost of their internet service. As Dirk pointed out on the show, that can often be the entire cost of someone’s internet bill. 

“It’s basically free broadband” in many places, Dirk said. But not everywhere.

Perfect, it is not, but it’s an enormous help where there had previously been little to none. After all, 4 million American families have already lowered their internet costs as a result in 2021. That’s a lot of people, more than the entire population of the city of Chicago. But they represent only 15% of all eligible families. The opportunity before us is to get the other 85% signed up. Hence why Dirk is so glad to keep spreading the word to everyone.

As great as that is, it’s only one part of why Huffman and NDIA are thrilled about what’s to come in the next few months as Congress’s bipartisan infrastructure bill works its way to President Joe Biden’s desk. 

The Digital Equity Act championed by Sens. Patty Murray (D-Washington) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) made it into the $1 trillion physical infrastructure bill the Senate recently sent to the House of Representatives for revision and final passage. Huffman wrote recently this means a federal fund will soon be established to help states plan, and then implement, internet-related programs to get all citizens connected to reliable high-speed internet, plus increase more internet service provider competition in their communities to lower costs further. 

Your Neighbors Need Your Help

There’s even more causing NDIA to suggest we’re on our way to making the internet “the great equalizer of our time.” But we aren’t there yet. 

To get there requires more than federal funding and guidance. It requires local coalitions to implement everything. Huffman has our backs there, too, with great advice on how to get your friends and neighbors and community leaders to come together to ensure everyone benefits from these new funds. 

“Find who your friends are,” Huffman said is her best advice on how to make local change. 

In the case of #InternetForAll, she said that means that everyone’s lives get a little easier when the lives of people at the bottom of the income ladder get a lot easier. If you’re unhappy about high internet costs, adding your neighbors to your internet service provider’s network increases service while “it lowers the costs for everyone,” Dirk replied. That’s a great way to find friends.

The internet service providers will get paid by the subsidies to your currently unconnected neighbors and then they can continue adding capacity for faster and more reliable broadband for years to come—for everyone in the network, with lower individual bills for each subscriber. It’s win-win-win.  

But the best way to find friends is through regular conversations. That’s where current internet-savvy users come in handy for their newly connected neighbors. Along with local, state, and federal resources, Dirk said we can all do our part to make sure nobody is stuck with an overwhelming amount of confusing information and no education on how to even use things like search engines and scheduling doctor appointments online. 

“If you’re in a boat and you don’t know how to use a paddle, you’re lost in the ocean,” he said of newly minted internet users. 

We have a resource right here for you to help spread the word to get more people signed up, and more actions will be coming to build momentum.

To learn how to keep your community connected and thriving, tune into the next Desegregate the Internet on September 7 at 4 p.m. Eastern on Citizen Ed’s Facebook and YouTube. See you soon. 

This piece originally published on Citizen Ed.

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