Local and Federal Efforts Aim to Bridge the Digital Divide in the Washington – Greater Greater Washington Area

An old Comcast box model from Mr.TinDC licensed under Creative Commons.

In Washington DC, the digital divide is a long-standing challenge. A quarter of DC households do not have a broadband internet connection, with those numbers rising to over 35% in Wards 5, 7, and 8, which are predominantly black neighborhoods.

DC’s disparities are greater than those elsewhere in the Washington area. In most counties in Northern Virginia, less than 10% of residents do not have a broadband subscription. In Maryland, 21.9% of households in Prince George’s County, 15.3% in Montgomery County and 11.4% in Howard County are not connected to broadband. Similar to DC, broadband adoption rates are below state averages for black residents in Maryland and Virginia.

DC residents’ lack of high-speed internet is not due to a lack of coverage, as inadequate infrastructure is only an obstacle for 3,000 of DC’s 53,000 homes that are not connected to broadband. Instead, it’s largely driven by cost — a 2011 survey of broadband adoption by the District of Columbia’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer determined that low-income residents are “significantly less likely to ‘use broadband at home’. According to the 2019 American Community Survey, 29.62% of DC households earning less than $50,000/year do not have a high-speed Internet subscription.

This digital divide has many negative effects on those who do not have access to broadband. Not being connected to high-speed internet can “impact the fairness of remote court proceedings,” prevent people from accessing government services such as unemployment programs, and prevent people from being able to attend court visits. telehealth. More importantly, he has become a significant barrier to accessing education, especially for DC students of color. According to a 2020 study, 27% of black students and 25% of Latino students in DC do not have high-speed internet at home, compared to only 5% of white students in DC, making it difficult for many black and Latinos in the city to fully participate in virtual learning. In response to these challenges, efforts have been made locally and nationally over the past year to make broadband more affordable.

The federal infrastructure bill’s focus on expanding broadband access has drawn attention as a potential solution to the nationwide digital divide. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allocates $42.5 billion in grants that will go directly to states and territories, with the district receiving approximately $100 million over 5 years under this program.

These grants can be used to expand broadband access through building infrastructure and by expanding service to underserved communities, but they can also be used to provide sub-grants that would encourage broadband adoption. throughput in areas that already have access. This would allow the district to allocate its federal grant money to help the city transition to making broadband more affordable. The law also requires that any service provider that receives a sub-grant under this program offer at least one low-cost broadband option for subscribers. What would be considered “low cost” in DC would be determined by the District and the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information.

In addition to making broadband more affordable through subsidies and regulations, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act made the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program permanent.

The EBB program began on May 11, 2021, after being authorized in the December 2020 appropriations bill, and it offered certain eligible low-income households a reduction of $50 per month on the cost of their Internet at residence. The EBB has eliminated more than half of the average $70 monthly cost that low-income DC residents pay for high-speed internet, and by the end of 2021, 29,456 households in DC, 130,811 households in the Maryland and 165,014 households in Virginia were listed.

However, only $3.2 billion in funds had been earmarked for the EBB program nationwide, as it was only intended as a temporary measure to last through the pandemic. A permanent extension of the program was included in the infrastructure bill, which renamed it the Affordable Connectivity Fund and allocated $14.2 billion in federal funds to reduce broadband costs for households in low income. More households will be eligible under the revamped program, but there will only be a monthly rebate of $30. Additionally, some are concerned that the funding will last no more than 3 years without further development of a universal service funding and administration framework by the FCC.

Because of these gaps, the work of state governments in the region to expand broadband access remains crucial. In April, 10 DC council members introduced Bill 24-200, the Internet Fairness Amendment Act of 2021. Under this bill, the Office of the Chief Technology Officer would create a Digital Equity Division, both to determine recommended connection speeds and to ensure within 180 days of the enactment of the law that all DC households must be connected to the Internet at these speeds at a cost of less than 0.5% of their household income. This would be accomplished through partnerships with internet service providers and through the DC-Net program, which provides affordable broadband access to residents of the district. Eventually, the office would explore options, including building a city-owned and operated broadband service. Although there were public hearings on the bill in September and October, it did not get past that stage.

Maryland has also taken steps to make broadband more affordable. In August, Governor Hogan and legislative leaders announced the creation of the Maryland Emergency Broadband Benefit Subsidy Program, which provides an additional cumulative discount on broadband costs of up to $15/month to Marylanders enrolled in the EBB program.

No similar plan appears to have been advanced in Virginia – former Gov. Ralph Northam and recently inaugurated Gov. Glenn Youngkin have focused more on expanding broadband access to rural areas of the state.

Joshua Montgomery-Patt is originally from Chicago and holds BAs in social and political relations and communications from Michigan State University. He is a former GGWash intern and is deeply interested in affordable housing and public transportation. In his spare time, he enjoys watching foreign and independent films.

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