By Yosef Getachew
In so many ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that broadband is an essential service. We rely on digital connectivity to stay in touch with friends and family, work from home, log on to virtual classrooms, receive medical care through telehealth, and to meet daily needs. But the importance of broadband extends beyond economic benefits and individual needs – it is also critical infrastructure that supports our democracy.
Access to affordable broadband is crucial for a functioning 21st century democracy. As technology advances, many of our basic democratic values depend on robust connectivity. Broadband enhances civic engagement, participation in the democratic process, and a responsive government. Yet, millions in our country lack access to affordable, high-speed broadband and continue to face significant barriers to get online.
Affordability remains the most significant barrier to broadband adoption while those on the wrong side of the digital divide are disproportionately low-income, people of color, seniors, people with disabilities, and other marginalized communities. Without broadband, these communities live in a democracy where their voices go unheard and their needs are unmet.
The link between civic engagement and broadband access has never been greater as technology has fundamentally changed democratic participation. Voting is one of the most powerful ways to be heard and the foundation for engaging in the democratic process.
Today, 40 states and the District of Columbia offer online voter registration. This is not just a matter of convenience as studies show that online voter registration is accurate, affordable, and nonpartisan. Civic technology has also provided a variety of tools to participate in the political process through petition signatures, political contributions, and communicating with elected officials online. Given the new reality that voter turnout campaigns have transitioned online, it is no surprise studies show that residents with broadband are more likely to vote in local elections and engage in their communities. Residents who lack reliable access are digitally excluded and do not experience the same benefits from civic participation.
The internet is also a powerful tool for organizing and mobilizing, particularly for marginalized communities who have historically faced discrimination, which often goes unreported in the media. Activism around social movements such as #BlackLivesMatter simply would not be possible without a broadband connection.
People of color, seniors, people with disabilities continue to lag behind in broadband access. According to a recent Pew Research Center report, 39 percent of the Latino community and 34 percent of African Americans do not have a fixed broadband connections at home. Without broadband access, these marginalized communities do not only miss out on the benefits of digital access, they lack an essential tool that enables democratic participation.
To have your voice count, you must be counted. But without a broadband connection that has become increasingly difficult. With the 2020 Census moving online for the first time, millions of people without broadband are in danger of going uncounted. While a paper option to complete the Census is still available, the transition to using digital tools signals the government’s efforts to increase internet responses and spend less resources doing outreach to get paper responses submitted. An accurate census count is critical in determining everything from congressional district maps to local resource allocation – like education, housing, healthcare, and digital infrastructure. Communities who are undercounted may get inadequate federal resources, putting them at further risk of getting left behind in our democracy.
The gaps in broadband connectivity show how far we are from achieving an equitable democracy that works for everyone. That is why the Federal Communications Commission – the agency tasked with ensuring universal service – must do more to solve existing disparities in connectivity and ensure that everyone has affordable and robust broadband access.
At Common Cause, we are committed to advancing policies that connect our most marginalized communities through digital inclusion programs, robust broadband Lifeline service, and subsidies that help low-income households purchase quality broadband services. Attaining the full promise of our democracy must start with closing the digital divide to ensure that each of us has an equal voice in the future of our country.
Yosef Getachew serves as the Media & Democracy Program Director for Common Cause where he leads strategic campaigns to educate and engage the public and policymakers on critical reforms needed to advance an open and accessible media ecosystem. Prior to joining Common Cause, Yosef served as a Policy Fellow at Public Knowledge where he worked on a variety of technology and communications issues. His work has focused on broadband privacy, broadband access and affordability, and other consumer issues.