On May 6, 2021, the Communications and Technology Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee held a virtual hearing to discuss “Broadband Equity: Addressing Disparities in Access and Affordability.” The hearing was called to examine persistent barriers to broadband access and affordability, recognizing the disparate impact in minority and low-income communities. Next Century Cities Executive Director, Francella Ochillo, was called to testify.
In her testimony, Francella highlighted that cities, counties, towns, and villages across the nation treat broadband as essential infrastructure. Municipal leaders have first-hand experience with the impact that robust connectivity, or the lack thereof, has on their communities. Summarizing sentiments from local officials, she stated, “where broadband is ubiquitous, residents have power.”
Francella stressed that communities should have the flexibility to decide which network model works best and resources to ensure that residents are able to adopt. Federal policy and resources must support local efforts. Currently, thousands of communities do not benefit from federal broadband resources and are forced to resolve both access and affordability challenges on their own. Federal leadership on digital equity, inclusion, and more accurate information on access and adoption would accelerate bringing broadband within reach for every household.
Importantly, municipal, cooperative, mesh, and other nontraditional network models are providing service areas where traditional providers have refused to go. Some communities have reluctantly launched municipal and cooperative broadband networks and found ways to provide higher speeds at a lower cost than in their neighboring markets.
Public WiFi and mesh networks to fill in important gaps in coverage, particularly during the pandemic. Schools and libraries stepped up in a variety of ways, including angling their WiFi into parking lots to help facilitate connectivity for those who needed access but could not use the building. As Francella explained in a colloquy with Congresswoman Doris Matsui, low-income residents of all ages rely on public libraries as their primary access point for broadband.
Regarding digital redlining, Francella reiterated that it is a pervasive national issue that is not exclusive to urban communities. As one moves away from urban centers in rural areas, broadband subscriptions decrease and technologies such as fiber are rare. She stated plainly, “where you find poverty, you will find the digital divide.”
Emphasizing how the digital divide impacts education, specialized healthcare, and innovation, Francella noted that communities that remain unserved or underserved will remain at an economic disadvantage, noting that “gaps in broadband access mean that their workforce is unable to fully prepare high-skilled jobs in a knowledge-based economy.” She elaborated on the economic impact to local and state economies in a discussion with Congresswoman Yvette Clarke.
The hearing also covered how affordable broadband programs are necessary to ensure that every person living in the United States has access to high-speed broadband service. Service at the current minimum threshold of 25/3 Mbps is not sufficient to support homes with more than one person working, learning, and accessing healthcare during the pandemic. The FCC reports that over 84% of the nation has Gigabit speed access, but challengers show that this number is a vast overestimate of true Gigabit access and ignores high prices for Gigabit service compared to lower speed tiers. Municipalities offer comparable prices for Gigabit symmetrical services and generally also offer an affordable option for residents.
Though many providers offer affordability programs, persistent challenges remain to enroll residents. Local officials in states like Indiana, Hawaii, and California have observed that these programs are not available ubiquitously, the people who needs affordable service the most lack reliable and trusted information about programs from private providers, and that for some residents, even an affordable program offering $10 or $20 service is too expensive for residents surviving on the lowest incomes.
Even if affordable programs are available, adoption gaps will persist if residents lack the skills or a device to use the technology. Digital literacy programs are an important component of digital equity programs. Local governments across the country have partnered with schools, libraries, and trusted digital navigators wherever resources and manpower are available.
Members of Congress highlighted the importance of not just investing in new technologies that can provide high-speed service for years to come, but also sought to understand how open access networks can drive down costs. Critically, open access network models allow multiple providers, public or private, to utilize the same infrastructure. This has the effect of reducing new build out costs to only those areas which are unserved, and lowering costs for subscribers as new entrants are able to compete.
This hearing shows that Congress is taking a new interest in ensuring that universal connectivity steps away from being a goal and becomes a reality. Broadband is an essential service much like water or electricity, and we must work together to guarantee that anyone who wants to get connected can no matter their zip code, income level, or race.