Editor’s Note: Derrick Johnson is president and CEO of the NAACP. Geoffrey Starks is a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own.
People of color and low-income communities have been disproportionately harmed by both the Covid-19 virus and the economic recession. It will be hard to ultimately “Build Back Better” unless we first address the racial and economic impact of the digital divide.
Full participation in 21st-century society requires everyone to have a reliable broadband connection to access work, healthcare, education and government resources. Many Americans, including millions who have lost their jobs during the pandemic, have yet to adopt broadband because they are simply unable to afford it.
Research shows that those who are most at risk of being on the wrong side of this divide are Black, Latinx, Indigenous or low-income. No family should have to decide between putting groceries on the table or getting their household connected. We must focus on the needs of our most marginalized communities in order to truly make progress in closing the digital divide.
Congress recently directed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to establish the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which will provide a monthly discount of up to $50 for broadband service per eligible household and up to $75 a month if the eligible household is on tribal lands. This program, which is set to open to consumers within the next 60 days, will also provide a one-time discount of up to $100 on a computer or tablet for eligible households. This $3.2 billion program is set to last for up to six months after the Covid-19 crisis ends or until the funds are exhausted.
The digital divide is also inextricably linked to economic opportunity. The unemployment rate for Black workers during the pandemic reached its peak in April and May of 2020. During these months of uncertainty, 16.7% or more than 3 million Black people were out of work and looking for jobs. And with the unemployment rate for Black workers currently hovering around 9.9%, it is clear that rebuilding our economy will require retraining our workforce and connecting them to the jobs of the future. Due to the pandemic, much of this work will have to be done remotely via broadband.
Revitalizing our small and minority-owned businesses will similarly require ubiquitous connectivity. Since February 2020, there has been a 41% plunge in Black business ownership. And while there are many factors that have led to this devastating reality, Black-owned businesses will need to digitize their companies in order to respond to a moment that is increasingly dependent on online services. And for the businesses that have survived, they need access to updated technology so they can remain pillars of Black neighborhoods across the nation.
Digital inequity has left vulnerable communities dependent on their data-limited mobile devices and parking lot Wi-Fi as the only methods for accessing distance learning, telework and telehealth services. During the pandemic, our youngest learners have been noticeably impacted. With a disproportionate lack of connectivity, Black students are, on average, falling 10.3 months behind in their schoolwork, Latinx students are falling nearly 9.2 months behind and low-income students have the potential to fall behind by more than a year, according to a report from McKinsey and Company. Meanwhile, White students are falling six months behind on their school work. This is nothing short of a crisis.
Our shared future will, by necessity, be connected. 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.
Now is the time to build an equitable broadband future for all.