FCC commissioner: Erasing 'digital divide' key to increased opportunity

A person conducts a class using Zoom in this illustration photo. (CNS photo/Loren Elliott, Reuters)

By Mark Pattison, Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — The coronavirus pandemic has changed just about everything, including the priorities of the Federal Communications Commission.

FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, during a March 10 online webinar, took stock of the inequitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and how the most vulnerable of Americans — the ones likely to reap the biggest benefit from vaccination — also are the ones who have missed out most on getting the shots.

The same problem exists, and persists, with broadband, Starks said.

“The prior (FCC) administration was focused primarily on broadband access to rural communities,” Starks said. “I’m a Kansan so I totally understand. The rural issue totally warrants attention.

He added, “But we need to focus on the urban, densely populated areas that have not adopted broadband,” with affordability a key concern.

“Our economy is being powered by the internet in a lot of ways. I don’t have to tell you about education. I have a young leonine at my house who is online for her studies,” Starks said. “In some ways, it has changed everything, yes. But in some ways it hasn’t changed anything.

“We have been talking about the digital divide for 25 years,” he continued. If anything, Starks said, the divide “has calcified and hardened. … It has turned into a monstrous COVID-19 divide.”

Prior to the pandemic’s start a year ago, Starks toured Georgia and Alabama to hear the needs and concerns of local leaders. In Selma, Alabama, the public housing authority had prioritized getting residents in public low-income housing access to broadband and tablets.

Starks told of a single mother of three who lived in the George Washington Carver Homes in Selma, a low-income housing project originally built in 1952, long before the internet was a gleam in anyone’s eye. Starks said the woman told him “how broadband enabled her to complete assignments and get a degree, and keep her children.”

But in February, Starks met with the principal of the Brenda Scott Academy in Detroit, where 88% of the students are Black, and 88% qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

The middle schoolers were “so precious and so smart,” he recalled. “They put their finger on the nose: devices that weren’t performing and lack of connectivity.” There was one student, Starks said, “who I fully expect to become a FCC commissioner someday: ‘We need a better internet,’ she said. I could not agree more fully.”

The experience in Detroit reveals another consideration for policymakers, he noted. Poor Americans are “a community I feel has to be strongly focused on if we’re going to get everyone connected. If you’re having food insecurity, I say you’re likely to have digital insecurity as well.”

Starks added, “Focus on these families that are struggling during the pandemic. As for those kids eligible for free and reduced-price lunch and breakfast programs,” he said, “make sure they’re learning and getting what they need digitally.”

Responding to the pandemic, Congress earlier this year directed the FCC to establish an emergency broadband benefit that provides a discount of up to $50 a month toward broadband service for eligible households — up to $75 a month for households on tribal lands. Eligible households also can receive a one-time discount of up to $100 for a laptop or tablet as long as they contribute as little as $10 toward its purchase. Starks said he expected it to roll out in late April.

Education was disrupted by the pandemic at all levels, including college. Starks homed in on students attending historically Black colleges and universities. Up to 80% of them qualify for federal Pell grants to help meet tuition expenses, he said.

But when academic life was shut down a year ago, “it was like a diaspora” as students headed back home to find the same connectivity problems they endured in middle and high school. “How inextricably linked opportunity is to the digital divide,” Starks said. “How important is it for those low-income communities to have broadband.”

The day before the webinar, Starks and NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson wrote an op-ed essay on the digital divide that was posted on CNN’s website.

“Our shared future will, by necessity, be connected,” they said. “If we do not adequately address all sides of the digital divide — equitable deployment of broadband infrastructure, affordable connectivity, digital readiness training and access to connected devices — we will undoubtedly fail the American people.”

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