New Broadband Maps are Breakthrough Moment in the Fight to Close the Digital Divide
Previous efforts to expand internet service to unserved and underserved communities have been largely stalled by poor record-keeping. Even in a world increasingly awash in data, analytics, and algorithms, efforts to identify gaps in connectivity with greater precision have been overlooked or – until recently – were proven ineffective.
Amid a pandemic that demands greater physical space between us and our communities and a recalibration of our preferred hobbies and routines, it has become abundantly clear that mapping Americans’ connectivity is more than a simple exercise in remedying a dated bureaucratic process; it is a process that is critical for protecting lives and livelihoods. This is especially true for communities that have historically existed on the margins and who have disproportionately shouldered the burdens of a widening digital divide.
As poverty rates for nearly all populations have increased, LGBTQ+ Americans remain more likely to be poor than heterosexual people. LGBTQ+ people collectively have a poverty rate of 21.6%, which is much higher than the rate for the cisgender straight people of 15.7%. Gender, race, education and geography all influence poverty rates among LGBTQ+ populations, and children of same-sex couple are particularly vulnerable to poverty. Thus, it is not a leap to suggest that members of our own LGBTQ+ community are among the millions of Americans that remain disconnected from even basic broadband services. Where internet access is more assured, our community stands out in several ways that illuminate what getting LGBTQ+ individuals online looks like in practice compared to the general population: higher incidences of social media usage needed to foster social connection; faster adoption rates of new, digital technologies and importantly; a greater propensity to seek out trusted health and preventative services.
As nationwide demand for digital services has intensified during the pandemic, so too have calls for urgent government action to get internet access, devices, and other tools in the hands of people who need them most. Of course, our success in finally connecting every single American will hinge on the availability of accurate broadband maps.
In December, Congress took an important step to facilitate access to better data about where broadband internet access is and is not available, including in tough to reach rural areas. They appropriated $65 million for this new mapping effort and directed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to proceed with implementation. Make no mistake: this is a monumental decision that will go a long way toward supporting connectivity in communities across the country. With more precise maps, government can spend more effectively and efficiently to finally close the digital divide.
To be sure, there is ample work to be done to apply principles of equity as we work to expand access to digital services. Modern broadband maps are a critical first step, but leaders in government and industry must continue to work together to prioritize additional solutions to make internet coverage more accessible during the pandemic and well after. The growing calls to modernize the FCC’s Lifeline program, for example, deserve serious attention from our community as well. Finding those who do not have internet access is just the beginning.