The internet is a central part of modern life. Today, school, work, connecting with friends and family and even receiving healthcare all take place online. That is why bringing broadband to every American is a critical issue. As our communities begin the slow process of re-opening and economic recovery, preserving and expanding our gains in expanding access to high-speed internet access will be crucial for Filipino Americans and the entire AAPI community.
As important as internet access is, too many Americans face significant barriers to obtaining reliable, high-speed internet. In fact, millions of households throughout the United States still lack internet access – according to a recent New York Times report, densely populated urban areas and remote rural areas are most affected, with 13.6 million urban households and 4.6 million rural households lacking connection.
As you might imagine these disproportionately low-income and minority households struggled most to adapt to the society-wide digital transition over the course of the pandemic. In areas healthcare to education, these Americans risked being left out and left behind. In fact, even those with reliable broadband connections still struggle. According to Pew, some 15% of home broadband users in the U.S. reported having trouble paying for their high-speed internet service during the coronavirus outbreak.
The last year has it made clear that the persistent lack of broadband access experienced by many in our community hinders employment and educational opportunities while compromising our health and safety. The first hurdle we must overcome to close the digital divide is expanding access to the internet. The second is ensuring that consumers can afford it on an uninterrupted basis. But existing federal programs and pandemic-relief solutions like the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) Program are not enough to help connect our communities with the digital services and resources needed to excel in a 21st Century economy.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the EBB has made available up to $3.2 billion worth of discounts on broadband services and equipment like computers and tablets. Eligible households can receive up to a $50 per month discount on their broadband, or $75 on qualifying Tribal lands. They will also be eligible for a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from participating providers if they contribute more than $10 and less than $50 toward the purchase price.
Over 1,000 providers have agreed to take part in the program and recent reports from the FCC show over 2 million U.S. households have already enrolled. The discount program, which began May 12, will continue an estimated four to six months, so there’s still time for the Filipino American community to access to these benefits.
To be sure, the EBB has the potential to provide immediate relief to the AAPI community and other Americans facing hardship, but we must recognize that it is only a temporary solution. By enacting the EBB Program, Congress recognized that a comprehensive, government-funded benefit was the best path to achieve a consistent reliable solution for low-income Americans. And while EBB is a great first step, a more permanent, fully funded solution is needed to bridge the digital divide for good.
As Congress considers the future of federal broadband programs, they must also take a hard look at Lifeline. The Lifeline program is intended to help make telecommunications services more affordable for low-income Americans, but it has struggled to keep pace with growing connectivity needs and is buckling under the weight of its administrative challenges. The current Lifeline benefit of $9.25/month for eligible households is simply adequate to support critical broadband needs. A benefit administered directly and electronically to consumers – much like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) – represents a viable model for modernizing Lifeline and getting more Americans online.
The internet is a powerful and indispensable tool. The sooner Filipino American and AAPI communities can access high-speed internet services, the quicker we’ll be able take advantage of innovation happening across key sectors of the economy. It’s time to make expanding broadband access a priority so we can all move into the future together.