Josh joined Pro Bono Net as Legal Content and Network Support Assistant during May and June 2020, with a focus on supporting Pro Bono Net’s COVID-19 response efforts. Josh graduated from Brown in December 2019, where he majored in history. He has experience in policy research and advocacy at the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, (a now inactive website he founded to track NYPD crime data), and at the New York City Council. Josh has written a three-part blog series on the digital divide. Here is part two: 

The digital divide that has long hurt rural and tribal communities, Black and Latino households, and low-income households has garnered significant legislative attention during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

During COVID-19, internet providers agreed to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai’s “Keep Americans Connected Pledge” not to cut off customers’ service. This pledge lapsed on  June 30th. Now, millions of Americans are experiencing a gap in federal support with the expiration of CARES act benefits. With little to stop internet companies from cutting off service to those who miss bills, many have reason to fear that they will lose their internet service. 

But, the digital divide extends beyond the scope of this present crisis, and warrants legislative attention beyond short-term relief during the COVID-19 crisis. As NPR reports, internet companies often have little incentive to invest in high speed broadband in rural communities. Some municipalities have built their own broadband networks, but over a dozen states have passed Telecom supported legislation that keeps towns and cities from building broadband networks. New America, a public policy think tank, has its own plan to help communities build their own broadband networks: Community Broadband: The Fast, Affordable Internet Option That’s Flying Under the Radar. The plan advocates for communities to create their own broadband networks and urges policymakers to pass legislation including the Community Broadband Act, which would prevent states from creating laws that ban towns and cities from creating their own broadband networks.

Current Policy

The CARES Act provides significant support for telehealth programs. It provides $200 million for the FCC’s telehealth program, $180 million to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) telehealth and rural health work, and significant funding to the Department of Health and Human Services ($27 billion), some of which went to telehealth. In April the FCC created the Connected Care Pilot Program that will spend $100 million over three years to provide connected healthcare to low-income Americans and veterans. 

The package also appropriated appropriated $50 million to the Institute of Museum and Library Services for its work increasing access to the internet, and $13.5 billion in formula grants to states for elementary and secondary schools, some of which went to enable remote learning, and provided $453 million to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and $69 million to the Bureau of Indian Education, some of which went to closing the digital gap that particularly hurts tribal communities. The stimulus package doesn’t add to Lifeline, the only federal program that subsidizes low-income families’ internet and cellphone bills, or E-Rate, which funds schools and libraries’ digital access efforts. 

Under the Trump administration, the Federal Communications Commission has invested in building more rural infrastructure, but the gulf remains wide, and the administration has cut subsidies that help low-income Americans get online. 

In January the agency launched a $20.4 billion implementation to build broadband in rural communities. The Trump Administration has also cut Lifeline, which supports families who make less than 135% of the poverty line with a $9.25 monthly subsidy towards their cell or internet bill (and an additional $25 discount for those who qualify and live on tribal land). Lifeline is the only federal program specifically designed to connect low-income people. As Larry Irving emphasized in an Aspen Institute webinar, there are more people living in cities who cannot afford broadband than rural Americans who don’t have the infrastructure for high quality broadband (though the latter problem remains a fundamental barrier to rural prosperity and digital equity). 

According to Gigi Sohn of Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy, only one in five people who are eligible for Lifeline are enrolled in the program. Under the Trump administration, applications have gone down by 40% as a result of Chairman Ajit Pai’s actions to make it harder for applicants and providers to participate in the program, and the program’s budget has gone down by half. However, in a step to make it easier to apply for Lifeline during the pandemic, the FCC temporarily loosened income documentation requirements kept Lifeline subscribers from being involuntarily removed from the program.

Legislative Proposals

With Congress in recess until September without passing a new round of fiscal relief, it’s unclear when we’ll see a next round of stimulus, let alone legislation that invests in closing the digital divide. Still, expanding access to the internet has garnered significant focus from members of Congress and looks to be a key priority for many going forward. 

On July 1, the House passed a $1.5 trillion infrastructure package, which would invest significantly in closing the digital divide. The bill would appropriate about $100 billion in broadband infrastructure and other programs to close the digital divide, including $80 billion in broadband infrastructure through competitive bidding systems, $5 billion for a new program, the Broadband Infrastructure Financing Innovation (BIFIA), “to help finance local governments and public-private partnerships’ broadband construction,” and $5 billion for E-Rate grants that provide support for schools and libraries setting up internet access. The package would also entitle “households with a member who qualifies for Lifeline, free/reduced school lunch, or are recently unemployed to receive a $50 benefit, or a $75 benefit on tribal lands, to put toward the monthly price of internet service.” And, it would require the FCC to automatically coordinate with the USDA to make sure that those on SNAP who qualify for Lifeline are enrolled. 

In May, the House passed the “Heroes Act,” which would provide $4 billion to help families afford service through the end of the pandemic and add $1.5 billion to the E-Rate program. 

And Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign recently released a proposal to close the digital divide that included support for increased spending on broadband construction and digital equity. It would add $20 billion for rural broadband and reform Lifeline by increasing the number of participating broadband providers and “reducing fraud and abuse.” Vice President Biden also announced support for the The Digital Equity Act, which would provide $1.25 billion over five years to create two digital equity federal grant programs that focus on underserved populations: one administered competitively on the federal level and one that provides grants to states. 

This is the second part of Pro Bono Net’s three-part blog series on the Digital Divide. To read part three, click here