Reducing Digital Discrimination by Avoiding Digital Red Herrings
Universal broadband connectivity remains a lofty goal for policymakers across the political spectrum. The chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has frequently expressed her goal to ensure “everyone has the connections they need to live, work, and learn in the digital age.”
With this in mind, President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which, among many other provisions, requires that the FCC establish rules to “take action to prevent and eliminate digital discrimination.” The legislation, which passed in November 2021, states that “subscribers should benefit from equal access to broadband internet access service within the service area of a provider.”
The law tasks the FCC with adopting rules within two years to “facilitate equal access” to broadband and prevent discrimination based on income, race, ethnicity, color, religion or national origin. This means the FCC has been charged with preventing “digital discrimination” based on the aforementioned factors. But the term “discrimination” is broadly defined, and discriminatory factors may be more complicated than they initially appear. Facilitating equal access should focus on adoption, rather than overbuilding existing infrastructure, as overbuilding in low-income communities will not address adoption rates. Any action the FCC takes to address “digital discrimination” should be based on economic analysis and encourage the unconnected to connect.
The concerns that compelled President Biden to pass this law stemmed from the notion that providers were intentionally targeting minorities and low-income groups, refusing to provide coverage. Yet some studies have found that providers are not intentionally withholding services or engaging in practices that discriminate based on race, ethnicity, color, religion or national origin. According to one recent study, there was no “apparent relationship between race and connectivity.” But the study did note there was a positive relationship between income and percent of broadband connectivity. Further, the study highlighted that “low connectivity rates in urban neighborhoods are mostly due to a lack of uptake.” Essentially, the issue seems to be that despite broadband access in urban communities being high, adoption rates remain low. Intentionality aside, the fact that low-income communities—which are often communities of color—lack broadband connectivity needs to be remedied.
For many in low-income communities, broadband is an unaffordable luxury, but some strides have been taken to address this gap. For example, the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 appropriated $3.2 billion to create the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB). This program offered up to $50 a month toward broadband services for eligible households and up to a $100 discount on connected devices. This transformative program made broadband attainable for over 6 million low-income households. In addition, when the EBB ended in December 2021, it was replaced by the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). Like its predecessor, the ACP provides a fixed subsidy ($30 per month) for low-income customers’ broadband service.
Importantly, in response to these incentives, some carriers now offer plans to customers at no cost to the subscriber, and it has become clear that subsidizing customers’ choice of network and broadband service is a critical part of bridging the digital divide. And if these subsidies improve broadband adoption rates in lower-income areas, they could encourage carriers to deploy more advanced networks in the future.
The FCC should ultimately look to policies that encourage families in communities with low broadband adoption rates to access the services by promoting accessible and affordable broadband instead of overbuilding or forcing buildout where there is no market incentive. The FCC should consider expanding the ACP and updating things like the Universal Service Program (which assists consumers by promoting access to telecommunications and internet services via a fund paid as a fee) to better address adoption gaps. The FCC could also look into digital literacy programs to educate families on the benefits and utility of broadband service. As broadband is becoming more ubiquitous and essential, the FCC must work to ensure that no one is left behind by making broadband more accessible and affordable.