For LGBTQ+ individuals, the internet has always been a critically important tool that allows access to vital resources—from education to employment to health care—as well as connection with other members of the LGBTQ+ community. This is especially true in rural communities, where more and more LGBTQ+ people are choosing to call home, as LGBTQ+ individuals may depend even more on the internet to find connection with others given the geographic and cultural challenges inherent in rural communities.
Among other disparities, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the stark digital divide facing rural Americans. Statewide closures have shuttered many of the traditional meeting places for the LGBTQ+ community—including bars, coffee shops, cafes, and vital community centers—making ubiquitous broadband access more important than it has ever been. Congress must take action and find new solutions to achieve universal broadband so that no one is left behind.
The LGBTQ+ community has always been more heavily reliant on internet connectivity, with 80 percent of LGBTQ+ people networking online and 81 percent of LGBTQ+ youth using the internet to search for health information. Our PowerOn program has been working to ensure that homeless, isolated, and disadvantaged LGBTQ+ individuals have access to technology and broadband internet connections by advocating for greater funding and support for LGBTQ+ community centers nationwide.
As successful as our efforts to bridge the digital divide for rural LGBTQ+ Americans has been, there needs to be a larger commitment from Congress to truly make universal broadband a reality. Such a commitment includes funding broadband mapping legislation and fine tuning the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF).
Congress passed the Broadband DATA Act earlier this year to help the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) create more detailed, accurate maps reflecting the true state of broadband coverage in America today. This legislation must be funded to ensure funds appropriated for broadband deployment are being allocated where they are most needed, including many of the rural communities where LGBTQ+ Americans are living.
Once new mapping is in place, an updated version of RDOF should quickly follow to appropriate the funds needed to provide true high-speed access to all Americans. It is clear that the needs facing underserved communities far outweigh the remaining government allocations, particularly in RDOF. Congress must reassess legacy infrastructure programs, and RDOF should be improved to increase broad participation and maximize deployment.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress has shown it is more than capable of responding to big challenges with big solutions. It is time for legislators to finally tackle the biggest problem facing our country today and make universal broadband a top priority.
By ensuring all Americans—including vulnerable communities like the LGBTQ+ community—have unfettered access to broadband networks, Congress can not only begin to bridge the digital divide once and for all, but also help expedite the economic recovery our country needs now more than ever.