Comment: Vital program keeps low-income families online

Congress should renew monthly aid that connects Black, Latino, tribal and other families to the internet.

By Paula Sardinas / For The Herald

In an era dominated by technology, access to reliable and affordable high-speed internet is no longer a luxury. The covid-19 pandemic underscored the urgent need for all Washingtonians to be connected.

Unfortunately, a critical service established to help low-income Americans get online, known as the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), will disappear if Congress refuses to fund the program this year.

In Washington, as in many parts of the United States, underserved communities and low-income households are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to online access. ACP helps eliminate this disparity by providing $30 per month for qualifying households to help purchase high-speed internet plans from local providers. Without ACP, as many as 2.9 million households in Washington could lose access to the internet.

The digital divide is particularly stark within Black communities where 38 percent of households do not have adequate access to high-speed internet. This disparity extends to device ownership as well, with over 30 percent of Black households not owning a computer. ACP helps by providing not only monthly support for internet service payments but also a device discount of up to $100 to help folks get online and stay online.

Connectivity is also an important issue for Washington’s 29 federally recognized Indigenous tribes. Residents of tribal lands are four times as likely to not have broadband service than those living on non-tribal lands. ACP’s Enhanced Tribal Benefit helps to close this gap by providing an additional discount on internet service to tribal residents.

The digital divide has serious implications for education, workforce development, and health care access as well. Without reliable internet connectivity, individuals in low-income Washington households face constant barriers as our world becomes more and more dependent on access to broadband services.

By reducing the cost of broadband, ACP opens doors to countless employment, education and economic opportunities for Washingtonians, fostering upward mobility and reducing income inequality. According to a 2020 report from the National Skills Coalition, Black and Latino individuals make up nearly 12 percent to 14 percent of all workers, respectively, but are lacking digital literacy, with 36 percent of Black workers and 55 percent of Latino workers having limited or no digital skills. ACP helps to bridge that gap and provide workers with the opportunity to learn to navigate the online world.

Through telehealth, a service more likely to be used by low-income minority patients, patients can reach providers quickly and safely, regardless of their location.

ACP and broadband expansion are also good for the economy. Studies consistently show that increased broadband adoption leads to job creation, enhanced productivity and improved economic growth. By investing in affordable connectivity, Washington will continue to be seen as a growing hub for innovation and economic prosperity, attracting businesses and bolstering its competitive edge.

Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell have been fierce advocates in the fight to bring equitable, accessible broadband to all communities through their support of projects including the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Program. We applaud Murray and Cantwell for their dedication to digital equity and join the National Action Network, the Black Economic Alliance, the Black Women’s Roundtable and 11 other prominent civil rights groups that called on lawmakers to secure ACP’s long-term future.

Paula Sardinas is chief executive and president of the WA Build Back Black Alliance, based in Issaquah.

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