Commentary: Bridging the urban digital divide

There have been many things, no doubt, that we have learned throughout this pandemic. If you are privileged, one that you may not have realized is just how important broadband Internet access has become in our modern world.
 
When the pandemic hit, many Floridians were able to quickly adjust to working from home, shopping online, and attending school remotely. However, for some, that was simply not an option. Why? Because they lacked the broadband Internet access that made it all possible.
 
For Floridians without broadband internet service, the issue may be a lack of access -- they live in rural areas that do not have the infrastructure in place to deliver high-speed Internet services. But for others who live in urban and suburban areas, where in most cases 99% of residents have coverage available, the primary obstacles to online access are digital literacy and service or device affordability.
 
Despite the fact that access can be considered a necessity, for many low-income families, broadband Internet services and connected devices, like smartphones, tablets and laptops, are a luxury that cannot be afforded.
 
There are steps that can be taken to help address this urban digital divide. As part of its coronavirus relief package, the federal government allocated funds to help more Americans gain access to broadband Internet services, because they too recognize it has become a basic need.
 
As these funds arrive in Florida, local governments in urban and suburban areas should focus on efforts to increase broadband adoption and affordability. Concepts like subsidies to help reduce broadband service costs or to pay for connections and programs to purchase and allocate Internet-ready devices are worthy of consideration.
 
For instance, the federal government recently launched a $3.2 billion effort called the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. This program provides $50-$75 a month to eligible low-income Americans to help cover the cost of broadband service and a one-time benefit for certain devices.
 
But this is only a temporary fix, addressing the issue of affordability and adoption moving forward will require reform to the federal Lifeline program. The Lifeline program was intended to make telecommunications services more affordable for low-income Americans but with a monthly benefit of just $9.25 it falls short of providing adequate resources for 21st century connections. This could be remedied with direct appropriations from Congress to raise the benefit to a minimum of $35 a month.
 
Without support, low-income families will continue to be left behind in our Internet-centered world. It’s time to fill in the gaps and make sure everyone can afford access to the broadband services available right outside their doors. These federal funds can help us get there.
 
Stanley Gray is the executive director of the Urban League of Hillsborough County.
 
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