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The Honorable Geoffrey Starks


As a Federal Communications Commissioner, I believe deeply that broadband access is a civil right. That means — just like the right to vote — it impacts nearly all fundamental aspects of our lives, from health to housing, and must be guaranteed. The chasm between those who have broadband and those who do not is called the digital divide.

With the coronavirus pandemic, the long-standing digital divide has morphed into something monstrous. Black Americans and other people of color are still, by a wide margin, significantly less likely to have a home broadband connection than their white counterparts. When we focus on broadband in America, we must also focus on the needs of communities of color as we prepare for our battle against internet inequality.

First, we must all recognize that the digital divide is inextricably linked to economic opportunity. Throughout the pandemic, Black workers have experienced devastatingly high rates of unemployment. It is clear that access to affordable, reliable broadband will be a critical element of how we build back our economy for those searching for jobs or seeking out opportunities to gain new skills for the jobs of the future. Additionally, as Black-owned small businesses have struggled to stay afloat during this time of uncertainty, broadband is needed to help these local businesses — pillars of Black neighborhoods across this nation — respond to a moment that is increasingly dependent on online services.

Second, we must also focus on ensuring that our youngest learners can thrive in a remote learning environment. According to reports, students of color may lose, on average, six to twelve months of learning by the end of June 2021 due to the pandemic and subsequent transition to remote learning. I met with middle school students from Brenda Scott Academy in Detroit, Michigan, who have big dreams but also know the challenges of online learning during this public health crisis. One eighth grader said plainly that she “needed a better internet.”  I couldn’t agree more. We must ensure that students are no longer dependent on trips to their local library and fast-food restaurants to access the internet to do their schoolwork.

Third, this pandemic has shown us that we also need “better internet” to access health care from our homes. We have seen ample evidence that telehealth has made an enormous difference in our nation’s pandemic response, particularly for low-income Americans. Telehealth increases patients’ access to specialists, including mental health care providers, and can further mitigate challenges like travel or other conditions that keep people from seeing doctors. In addition, it may reduce overall health care costs. Telehealth is here to stay, but the benefits of these services can only be realized if households have access to home broadband.

Finally, and this cannot be overstated, broadband allows us to build and nourish bonds with family, friends, and members of our community both near and far. Holidays, graduations, and birthday celebrations have moved online. And like many, my family has moved to attending church services virtually (“Zoom church,” as my 5-year-old likes to call it).

But there’s more. Without internet access, Americans cannot take advantage of online voter registration in 40 states and D.C. or request a mail-in ballot online. This is merely one way in which connectivity gets to the core of our civic participation.

There are many proposals on the table for how we can best close the digital divide;  and the National Urban League’s Lewis Latimer Plan for Digital Equity and Inclusion is a great place to start because we need to address all factors that keep people of color from thriving in this digital age, which includes availability, adoption, and access to economic opportunity.

As we look to our shared future during this unprecedented crisis, it is clear that we have an unparalleled opportunity to refocus our efforts on equity and justice. I will specifically focus on three intersecting paths to ensure we build a digitally inclusive nation. We must directly address the crucial issue of affordability. This cuts across red states and blue states, and the plain fact is that tens of millions of households — both urban and rural — lack broadband simply because it is too expensive. No family should have to decide between putting groceries on the table or getting their household connected. It is essential that we ensure broadband is affordable for vulnerable households that are struggling to make ends meet, and it will help rebuild our post-pandemic workforce and economy. In May 2021, the FCC launched the Emergency Broadband Benefit program to help connect low-income households to the internet. Congress, though, specifically designated this an emergency program set only for the duration of the pandemic. However, it is clear that we will need permanent solutions to ensure that all Americans can afford connectivity.

In addition, we must make a concerted effort to connect our seniors, who generally remain among the most disconnected individuals in America. Nearly 22 million American seniors (42%) lack a broadband connection at home. Not surprisingly, when you account for seniors who are low-income, live in a rural area, or both, the numbers are even more bleak. Digital skills and the lack of access to devices needed to navigate the internet are also significant factors here, and we must do better. We all saw the startling impact that a lack of digital readiness had in this core demographic when the predominant way to register for COVID-19 vaccinations was online.

Finally, I see a powerful ally in partnering with HBCUs. It is clear that crucial investments in HBCUs and the areas surrounding these pillars of our community will have a multiplier effect. When we partner with HBCUs, we’re partnering with the next generation of Black doctors, lawyers, and STEM professionals. In fact, 25% of Black graduates with STEM degrees come from HBCUs, and our collective success here will change the social and economic fabric of Black communities across America. We must invest in building an infrastructure that powers these community hubs of innovation that are largely concentrated across underserved and unserved areas of the Black rural south.   

It will take all of us in government, industry, the civil rights community, and the larger public interest community to collaborate and remain committed to getting Black communities the connectivity needed to fully participate in this digital age. The time is now.

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