Last Wednesday, the White House announced the #ConnectALL initiative and a goal to connect 20 million more people to broadband by 2020. That’s right — 20 million! According to the Pew Research Center, only about 67 percent of Americans have home broadband access, or roughly 80 percent when factoring in access via smartphones. Cost is the major reason most people do not have broadband connections, and, in fact, less than half of families with incomes below $25,000 have broadband service.
So, national policymakers MUST address the cost barrier. Fortunately, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is in the thick of considering new rules for the Lifeline program, which was created during the Reagan Administration to subsidize telephone service for low-income Americans. Approximately 10 percent of American households participate in the program, and voice telephone service is now nearly universal. As FCC Commissioners Tom Wheeler and Mignon Clyburn called out in their blog this week, broadband is a lifeline for the 21st century.
ALA is one of many digital inclusion advocacy organizations that have called for Lifeline to be expanded to include broadband. The folks at the Media Action Grassroots Network, for instance, have collected more than 100 stories that illuminate the need for low-cost, high-speed broadband. Based on the FCC fact sheet outlining proposed reforms, our collective voices have been heard in this regard. And the FCC has done an impressive job considering how to increase provider participation and consumer choice, ensure minimum standards, and increase transparency.
Key provisions include:
- Ability to apply the $9.25 per month support to stand-alone broadband (as well as bundled voice and data, and mobile voice through 2019);
- Minimum standards starting with 10/1Mbps fixed broadband speeds, minimum monthly fixed broadband data allowance of 150GB, 500 megabits of 3G data for mobile broadband to start, and unlimited minutes for mobile voice;
- New category of service providers called Lifeline Broadband Providers;
- National Eligibility Verifier to determine eligibility
There also is a special focus within the Lifeline item that recognizes the particular impact a home broadband connection can have for families with school-aged children. According to a Pew Research Center report, there are 5 million households with a school-aged child that lack home internet service. These are the kids that struggle with the “homework gap”—or being unable to complete many class assignments at home. While libraries play a critical role providing free public Internet access and online resources for school projects, having a home internet connection increases the opportunity to excel with school work and explore the abundance of opportunity online.
Community Connectivity Initiative
The Community Connectivity Initiative also was announced last week. The effort is led by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) BroadbandUSA Program in partnership with civic organizations and cities and towns. The initiative will create an online assessment tool to help community leaders identify critical broadband needs and connect them with expertise, tools and resources to overcome the challenges to expanded broadband deployment and adoption. The ALA is one of the national collaborators working to design and develop the tool, along with groups like the International City/County Management Association, the National Association of Counties and the National League of Cities.
Libraries can also engage directly in the effort in a variety of ways, including:
- BroadbandUSA will host a Community Connectivity Initiative Workshop in Seattle on March 22 in conjunction with the Digital Northwest Broadband Summit. Register here for the Seattle workshop;
- BroadbandUSA will host connectivity Initiative webinars at 2 pm EDT on March 24 and 2 pm EDT on April 12. Call-in information is available here;
- The Connectivity Initiative will also be showcased at the Broadband Communities Summit in Austin Texas on April 7 from 1 to 4 p.m. and at the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition Annual Conference in Crystal City, Virginia on April 28 from 9:45 a.m. to noon.
A number of communities already have agreed to support the tool development, as well, ranging from Ammon, Idaho, to Charlotte, North Carolina, to Seattle. Libraries may engage at the local level, directly by emailing BroadbandUSA@ntia.doc.gov or expressing interest to the ALA Washington Office by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
More about #ConnectALL
A couple more notable items for libraries and the broader digital inclusion community include:
- New collaboration between the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) to initiate a national service effort to deliver digital literacy skills training;
- Plan to expand access to devices for more organizations that provide digital literacy training for low-income Americans through the Computers for Learning program.
Ensuring equitable access to affordable, robust broadband is an essential national policy objective. ALA is pleased that the Administration, the FCC, and NTIA are all focusing efforts to address the barriers that remain for so many individuals and families across the country. We will be following the next phases of these efforts closely with the next action coming on March 31 when the Commission votes on the Lifeline item at the open Commission meeting.