A Chance to End the Digital Divide in Florida

Siottis Jackson is the Chief Operating Officer of the First Coast Leadership Foundation, a Jacksonville-based community organizing nonprofit

By Siottis Jackson – Days into the new school year, spiking COVID-19 cases have parents and educators across Duval County wondering and worrying about a possible return to virtual learning.

It’s a harsh reminder of the urgent need to close Florida’s digital divide and ensure that every family – urban and rural; rich and poor; Black, White, and Hispanic – is connected to broadband.

That’s why the pandemic’s resurgence in Florida and across the country makes passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill even more urgent.  After months of negotiation, a bipartisan majority in the U.S. Senate approved a plan that includes $65 billion to help connect every American.

For more than 700,000 rural Floridians not yet reached by broadband wires, it will subsidize network buildouts to reach each home.  And for more than 6 million Floridians living in low-income households, it will offer up to $30 a month to buy home internet service.

Now, it’s the House of Representative’s turn to step up and pass this historic bill.  Once signed, armies of community organizers will finally have the resources to start the critically important work of getting our unconnected neighbors signed up  – going door-to-door in low-income communities to raise awareness, offer digital training, and evangelize the importance of getting online.

And this won’t come a moment too soon.  American can not countenance another year of digital have nots where wealthy and wired can learn or work comfortably from home while the disadvantaged and disconnected are left to fall farther behind.

As the late Congressman John Lewis told us, internet access is “the civil rights issue of the 21st Century.” Disconnected families are disproportionately Black, Brown and low-income.  Only 65% of Hispanics and 71% of African Americans have internet service at home, compared to 80% of whites.  92% of households earning more than $75,000 ore online, compared to just 58% of those earning $30,000 or less.

That’s why civil rights organizations like the NAACP, National Urban League, and UnidosUS led the fight to ensure this bill includes an Affordable Connectivity Program – a monthly broadband subsidy available to any family earning up to 200% of the poverty level,

We know this model has promise.  The Emergency Broadband Benefit, a temporary initiative launched by the FCC in May, has already helped connect nearly five million low-income homes by knocking up to $50 off their monthly internet bill.  It builds on the foundations laid by private sector initiatives like Internet Essentials, a $10-a-month program that has connected more than 10 million Americans over the past decade.

For all their progress, these earlier efforts have also taught us the hard way that affordability is only one barrier among many.  Even when home internet service is offered for free, many eligible people are still hesitant to sign up.  Some report feeling skeptical of programs that sound “too good to be true”; others face language barriers or lack the digital skills to know how to sign up.  And 71% of adults without home internet actually say they’re just not interested in getting it.

These broader challenges won’t disappear overnight just because Congress passed an infrastructure bill.  Building this trust, overcoming these sociological barriers, and inspiring the curiosity and confidence to move the holdouts online will require a massive push in our communities – with the funds to back it – to make broadband a cultural must-have.  It will require digital literacy training, along with assistance and reinforcement showing the unconnected how broadband can help them find a new job, get health care, and stay in touch with their families.

The infrastructure bill includes a grant program to fund precisely this kind of on-the-ground outreach and education.  Along with the newly minted Affordable Connectivity Program, this package represents is the biggest policy advance in digital civil rights we’ve ever seen.

19 Republicans supported the bipartisan bill when it passed the Senate, from moderates like Susan Collins to Trump loyalists like Lindsay Graham.  Florida’s two Republican Senators, disappointingly, were not among them.  But our Representatives in the House now have a chance to lead where our Senators fell short.

The House should complete the task now, sending the bill to President Biden’s desk and resisting the efforts of malcontents in either party to renegotiate the bipartisan deal and endlessly relitigate the debate.  And then we should all roll up our sleeves in our local communities to do our part: getting the unconnected online and keeping them connected.

Siottis Jackson is the Chief Operating Officer of the First Coast Leadership Foundation, a Jacksonville-based community organizing nonprofit.



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