9 Policy Priorities for Closing the Digital Divide
- By Dian Schaffhauser
A nonprofit that promotes "open, affordable, high-quality broadband connections" has issued a roadmap for 2021, laying out what it will be pursuing in its mission of supplying internet access to an estimated 42 million unconnected people in the United States. At the heart of the solution is reliance on "anchor institutions" that need high-speed connectivity for their own operations and are well positioned to be able to share that with the surrounding community. Such organizations include K-12 districts, colleges and universities, libraries, hospitals, health clinics, public housing communities and houses of worship.
The "2021 Policy Roadmap," produced by the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition, listed nine policy priorities for closing the "digital divide":
- Turning to anchor institutions to help families gain access to free and low-cost broadband programs, computers and digital literacy training through a number of programs, including the emergency broadband benefit program enacted by Congress in the December 2020 COVID-19 relief legislation and the Lifeline program run by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
- Doing a "more accurate and granular" job of mapping those areas most in need of broadband and identifying the anchor institutions that can serve them. The roadmap called existing broadband maps "flawed": "They overstate broadband availability, lack pricing information and rely too heavily on industry-provided data."
- Strengthening the E-rate program, by streamlining the application process, expanding the list of eligible services to include WiFi on school buses and implementation of cybersecurity solutions, permitting non-schools or libraries to receive Category 2 funding and expanding E-rate to cover expenses related to remote learning.
- Bolstering the FCC's Rural Health Care Program with funding and improved administration, to accommodate a spike in telehealth usage.
- Including college-age students and their unique needs in any projects for developing student broadband access.
- Reforming the Universal Service Fund (USF), whose fees rose from 21.2 percent in the beginning of 2020 to 31.8 percent in 2021 in response to shrinking telecommunications revenues, and identifying alternative funding mechanisms to support the various programs run through USF.
- Promoting additional spectrum availability for anchor institutions, including expanded use of Citizens Broadband Radio Service (3.5 GHz), TV White Spaces and 6 GHz WiFi spectrums.
- Encouraging a reduction in local fees for accessing poles and rights-of-way to "change the economics of deploying broadband to unserved areas."
- Pushing for a reintroduction of the "Internet for All Act" in Congress or an alternative that can help "strengthen broadband infrastructure through anchor institutions."
"The Biden Administration gives us all a fresh opportunity to rectify the inequities revealed by the coronavirus pandemic, especially the ever-present digital divide," said Executive Director John Windhausen Jr., in a statement. "The booming demand for online services — for telemedicine, remote learning and online information access — means that anchor institutions and consumers need significantly more bandwidth than ever. At the same time, patrons, students and patients who don't have or can't afford internet at home cannot take advantage of these virtual necessities. They must either risk COVID exposure through in-person visits, or go without the healthcare and education that every person in this country deserves. That's why the SHLB Coalition has expanded its agenda for 2021. Our Policy Roadmap focuses on nine policy initiatives to ensure that anchor institutions have the broadband support they need and that they are empowered to connect residents who lack home access."
The policy roadmap is openly available on the SHLB Coalition site.
Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.