With the bipartisan infrastructure program providing $65 billion for universal broadband connectivity, the United States stands on the threshold of a historic advance: ensuring every American can connect to reliable, high-speed internet service.
These new, generational investments in wiring underserved communities and subsidizing low-income families’ subscriptions should completely remake the landscape of our digital divide. Our thinking — and our actions — need to evolve accordingly.
In the wake of these investments, neither availability nor affordability will stand as the primary barriers to universal connectivity. Instead, we’ll need to confront this inescapable and more intractable challenge: How can we help those still left behind — disproportionately Black, brown and low-income, and often older folks or those with disabilities — overcome the remaining web of obstacles to sign up for broadband service?
How we attack this broadband adoption challenge — and the underlying imperative of promoting digital literacy — will shape America’s future. The World Economic Forum estimates that, by the year 2030, nine out of 10 jobs will require digital skills. But the National Skills Coalition found that 31% of U.S. workers still lack basic digital skills.
While an estimated 97.5% of Americans live in neighborhoods reached by broadband networks, only 77% of all Americans — and only 65% of Hispanics, 71% of African Americans and 57% of low-income families — subscribe to broadband at home. Here in Baltimore, this broadband adoption challenge is even more stark: Two of every five households are not connected to fixed broadband, despite its availability to 99% of residents.
We are not working from a blank slate here. The infrastructure bill’s broadband provisions are guided by years of data from private and public sector programs that have chipped away successfully at this divide.
In the last 10 years, Comcast’s Internet Essentials initiative, for example, has connected a total of more than 10 million low-income Americans to home internet service. Similar programs from other private providers have brought millions more online with discounted subscriptions. And during the ongoing pandemic, the federal government has connected more than 8 million households so far with the groundbreaking Emergency Broadband Benefit.
These programs have succeeded because the heavily discounted service and device offerings were combined with persistent, front-line partnerships with community organizations to get people connected.
Now, the infrastructure bill’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) will build on this by offering any family earning up to twice the federal poverty level up to $30 per month to buy broadband service. Paired with providers’ low-income discounts, the program will make broadband service essentially free for tens of millions of Americans.
But our experience over the last decade tells us that price is not the only barrier to broadband adoption. My offering you free piano lessons isn’t going to get you to play if you’re not interested in music.
Chicago Connected, for instance — an ambitious partnership between the Chicago Public Schools, nonprofit groups, and broadband providers — was launched in June, 2020. It offers no-cost internet service to 228,000 eligible students. However, a year later, only 64,000 had signed up.
Sometimes, folks just don’t know about the discounts available in their communities. A Philadelphia survey showed that only 31% of eligible households had heard of low-cost or free internet offers from broadband providers, and only 13% knew about the Emergency Broadband Benefit.
Disenchantment, disillusionment and disinterest are complex challenges that are not easily solved by “free.” More than seven in 10 adults without home internet said they still aren’t interested in subscribing. Illiteracy, homelessness and social alienation from the digital world are pervasive issues in many communities. Few believe that simply getting online will offer them a better future. This is a feeling that has been mounting for years, rooted in a complex mix of, historical, economic and sociological factors.
Sparking the curiosity of young minds with the promise that the broadband internet can unlock a new world of unlimited possibilities is our biggest challenge. And that needs to be coupled with digital skills training and devices — like laptops or tablets — needed for online learning, work, college applications and so much else.
Because big institutions — public and private — are often not the most effective messengers in local communities, we need the right neighborhood partners at our sides, from nonprofits, churches, and barbershops to health clinics and food pantries, teachers, faith leaders, social workers, neighborhood businesses, influencers, and so-called “digital navigators” to get the job done. We need to be “all in” to tackle the adoption challenge.
All of us — policymakers, businesses, and community leaders — have to embrace a “no more excuses” attitude and a fierce sense of impatience to get the job done once and for all.
Baltimore native Broderick Johnson (Twitter: @gobluebrod) is executive vice president of Comcast and a former Cabinet Secretary for President Obama.