The divide on fixing digital disparity

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In the last decade, as state-of-the-art broadband infrastructure has reached many communities that lacked high-speed internet access, closing the “digital divide” seemed increasingly possible. That was before COVID-19 hit.

The pandemic made internet access more important than ever—to look up vital information, learn and work remotely, and maintain connections with family and friends. It also laid bare a hard fact about digital disparity: income has become an even bigger determinant of unequal access than geography. No matter how good the infrastructure, broadband is unavailable those who cannot afford it.

Recognizing this hurdle, both Albany and Washington over the last month have made moves to address the affordability gap. In mid-April, with passage of its new budget, New York is now requiring wireline, fixed wireless, and satellite broadband providers to start offering high-speed broadband service to qualifying low-income consumers. Effective no later than June 15, these plans would be priced at $15 a month or, for higher-speed broadband service, $20 a month.

Then this week, the federal government rolled out the Emergency Broadband Benefit, authorized by last December’s $2 trillion COVID aid package. For households that qualify, the EBB will provide $50 each month to pay for internet service. 

“Especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that internet access is no longer a luxury—it is a fundamental right required to participate in today’s society,” said Rep. Joe Morelle, in a May 11 statement. “Unfortunately, too many families in our community still lack access to this basic necessity. I’m proud to have helped deliver funding for the Emergency Broadband Benefit to equip more families with the tools to succeed.”

In both cases, lawmakers are targeting the crux of the problem. But key questions remain about the new state requirement and federal benefit program.

In New York, the ink was barely dry on the new law before a group of internet service providers including big telecom companies filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s authority to regulate broadband rates. The suit argues that “the broadband service that New York seeks to regulate has never been subject to rate regulation at the federal or state level.”

And by trying to do so, they contend, New York is overstepping its regulatory authority: Under federal law, broadband internet access is an interstate information service “that is subject to a federal regulatory framework,” and the Federal Communications Commission has “specifically identified ‘rate regulation’ as a harmful and ‘costly regulation’ that should not be applied to broadband.” 

The suit also argues that New York acknowledges there are already “multiple options” for New Yorkers to purchase affordable internet plans. Among these are the Lifeline program, which dates to the Reagan era and which Congress updated five years ago to include broadband service, and the EBB program.

The new $3.2 billion federal effort is generous both in terms of the subsidy it provides, which is paid to the consumer’s ISP and then deducted from their monthly bill, and the number of Americans who will qualify for the assistance. Among those eligible are households whose income is at or below 135 percent of the federal poverty line and those who can show proof of substantial loss of income since the pandemic began at the end of February 2020, with a total household income at or below $99,000 for single filers and $198,000 for joint filers.

But the EBB assistance won’t last forever—or perhaps even very long. The program will terminate six months after the Department of Health and Human Services declares the pandemic officially over or when the money runs out.

The digital divide in the Rochester-Finger Lakes region has narrowed, but it has not disappeared—and COVID’s economic disproportionate toll on low-income residents has likely aggravated it. In 2019, census data show, an estimated 92 percent of households in metropolitan Rochester had a computer and 86 percent had broadband internet. In the city of Rochester, the numbers were 87 percent and 78 percent, respectively.

When the data are segmented by income, the disparity is clear. Regionwide, only 67 percent of households with less than $20,000 in annual income have broadband service; the share in the city is 61 percent.

Given the legal challenge to New York’s new rate regulation law, the federal program might be a better approach here as well as nationwide. The EBB offers a way to ensure the affordability of broadband internet access without laying a heavy regulatory hand on service providers. Of course, Congress would need to be willing to continue funding it post-pandemic.

The price tag would not be small, to be sure. But with the economic benefits that are likely to come from closing the digital divide, it is a necessary investment.

Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor.

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