We have learned many things during the pandemic. If you are privileged, one that you may not have realized, is just how important broadband internet access has become in our modern world.
When the pandemic hit, many Floridians quickly adjusted to working from home, shopping online and attending school remotely. However, for some, that was not an option. Why? Because they lacked the broadband internet access that made it possible.
For Floridians without broadband service, the issue may be a lack of access — they live in rural areas without the infrastructure to deliver high-speed internet services. But for others who live in urban and suburban areas — where coverage is readily available — the primary obstacles to online access are digital literacy and service or device affordability.
For many low-income families, broadband services and connected devices, like smartphones and laptops, are an unaffordable luxury, despite the fact that internet access can be considered a necessity.
There are steps that can be taken to help address this digital divide. As part of coronavirus relief, the federal government allocated funds to help more Americans access broadband internet services. As these funds arrive in Florida, local governments in urban and suburban areas should focus on efforts to increase broadband adoption and affordability. Subsidies to help reduce service costs or to pay for connections and programs to purchase and allocate internet-ready devices are worthy of consideration.
For instance, the federal government recently launched a $3.2 billion effort called the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. This program provides $50-$75 a month to eligible low-income Americans to help cover the cost of broadband service and a one-time benefit for certain devices.
But this is only a temporary fix. Addressing the issue of affordability will require reform to the federal Lifeline program, intended to make telecommunications services more affordable for low-income Americans. With a monthly benefit of just $9.25, it falls short of providing adequate resources for 21st century connections. This could be remedied if Congress raised the benefit to a minimum of $35 a month.
Without support, low-income families will continue to be left behind. It’s time to fill in the gaps and make sure everyone can afford access to the broadband services available right outside their doors. These federal funds can help us get there.
Stanley Gray is the executive director of the Urban League of Hillsborough County.