The pandemic has highlighted the importance of internet connectivity for all Americans. This approach ties into a range of industries and sectors and fosters innovation, education and economic growth. As this foundation of modern life remains intact, so should our commitment to ensuring that the Internet does not remain inaccessible to millions of Americans.
In the early stages of the pandemic, thousands of images of American students doing homework in parking lots spurred Congress to action. Closing the digital divide, the gap in access to communications technologies that harms low-income communities and minorities, is a cornerstone of equal opportunity in education and, in turn, economic advancement.
It has been shown that few pandemic-related policy changes compare to initiatives such as the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which aimed to make internet access affordable for low-income households.
The ACP provides eligible households with a rebate of up to $30 per month for Internet access and up to $75 per month for tribal homes. In addition, eligible households who are eligible for other assistance programs such as Lifeline, SNAP and others will receive a rebate of up to $100 for laptops/desktops or tablets. Affordable internet plans and access to a device are the two biggest barriers to entry.
Since the Affordable Connectivity Program launched in late 2021, over 17 million American homes have signed up. The AKP has helped make tangible progress in bridging the digital divide. A 2021 study by Pew Research shows how important these benefits are to underserved communities across the United States. For example, Pew’s data shows that only 67% of Hispanic adults reported owning a computer, while only 65% reported having an Internet connection at home.
Another study published by the National League of Cities confirms the reason for this digital divide. NLC reports that 25% of Hispanics (compared to 19% of the US population as a whole) cited the price of Internet access as the top reason for not being online.
Florida is a good example of ACP success. The Sunshine State has one of the highest AKP enrollments in the US with over 1.2 million enrolled homes.
However, as more and more eligible households sign up, a major challenge looms. The AKP funds are expected to be used up in March 2024. If Congress allows this to happen, it would be making an incredible, unforced error and putting millions of lower-income American households on the wrong side of the digital divide.
The impact on education cannot be overstated. Millions of students who were given the opportunity to prioritize their education at ACP would be left behind. A basic policy that should not be disputed is that every child in the United States should have access to a quality education. In our modern world, a good education requires internet access.
Internet access not only fuels the success of American students of all economic backgrounds, it also fuels economic opportunity. Small businesses are a good example, as not only do they continue to be the primary source of job creation in the United States, but they are also a key component in fostering economic opportunity in underserved communities. Broadband access means jobs, opportunities and a chance for personal self-determination.
Additional government spending isn’t always the solution that spend-savvy politicians want. Encouraging innovation and greater private sector development should always be a priority, especially in underserved communities. At the same time, programs like ACP, which have successfully promoted educational and economic opportunity through connectivity for nearly 17 million American homes, truly deserve congressional support.
Mario H. Lopez is President of the Hispanic Leadership Fund, a public policy organization dedicated to promoting freedom, opportunity, and prosperity for all Americans.