Last week, the National Urban League released a report on “Connecting and Uplifting America.” The report focuses on a singular and essential question: “How can the tools of the information economy be employed to create a more equitable and inclusive society.”
I am reminded of poet Amanda Gorman’s verse on Inauguration Day, where she observed that we live in a nation that is not broken, simply unfinished. Creating pathways to broadband connectivity for all Americans is part of the work that remains undone in this country. NUL’s newly-released Lewis Latimer Plan for Digital Equity and Inclusion lays out a comprehensive plan for finishing this important work. It is a vital contribution to the broadband debate underway and we applaud NUL for its thought leadership.
There is much to digest in NUL’s proposed framework and I won’t attempt to address it all here. But I will share some initial impressions. The plan, in my opinion, finds some of its strongest footing in the discussion of broadband affordability, where it acknowledges that the current federal Lifeline framework is simply not up to the task of making broadband affordable for all Americans.
While the program has been updated to include broadband, the stagnant $9.25 subsidy, along with program requirements that discourage participation and the now broken Universal Service Fund (USF) funding model handicap the program in a way that calls for a fundamentally new approach.
The NUL framework provides us with that vision, which includes sustaining the core Lifeline benefit, but building on that benefit with a “Lifeline+” framework to ensure low-income Americans gain access to broadband connectivity exactly where they need it most, as they search for employment, seek health care or strive for educational achievement. The NUL plan also calls for reliance on existing government programs that already support Americans to efficiently distribute Lifeline+ benefits as part of existing benefit packages.
Imagine an unemployment benefits program that includes monthly support for broadband connectivity so recipients can efficiently search and apply for open positions. Or, imagine if eligible low-income adults who already receive Medicaid also received funding for broadband connectivity to communicate more efficiently with health care providers to monitor their health. The plan envisions that savings generated by the expanded online usage of existing government services could help fund connectivity going forward.
The pandemic has savagely exposed all the gaps that exist in this nation’s digital connectivity. As many as 17 million students remain disconnected despite all the efforts made by school districts and community partners. And a recent report estimates that the cost to closing this “learning gap” will require $6 to $11 billion for the first year, and $4 to $8 billion annually thereafter.
The Lewis Latimer Plan invites us all to think boldly about addressing these gaps in a comprehensive and sustainable way. Over the last several months, we have laid out our thoughts on how best to address the digital divide. We look forward to digging deeper into this plan and joining NUL in its efforts to drive us toward a more equitable and connected future.