Federal Communications Bar Association–Verrill Dana: Solving the Digital Divide

June 19, 2019 Alerts and Newsletters

Wireless Technology is the Key to Low-Income and Minority Households' Access to Broadband

Last Friday afternoon, inside a Verrill Dana conference room above the city of Boston, national and northeast telecomm. attorneys and professionals gathered to discuss the progress and remaining needs in achieving affordable access to high speed, broadband internet for all Americans. The Federal Communications Bar Association and Verrill Dana hosted the event, which featured a panel of distinguished telecommunication advisers and advocates, including: Barry Hobbins (Public Advocate of Maine), Elin Katz (Connecticut Consumer Counsel), Sherry Lichtenberg (Principal, National Regulatory Research Institute), and Daniel Lyons (Professor, Boston College Law School). Verrill Dana attorney Geoffrey Why moderated the discussion, which from the outset zeroed in upon broadband access, and adoption, among low-income and minority households.

The panelists offered insights from their many years of experience working across the U.S., from Maine and Connecticut, to California. During the roundtable discussion, the panelists arrived at a similar conclusion when it comes to access to broadband for low-income consumers:

"If low income families are going to have one form of broadband connection, it's going to be wireless." – Elin Katz

And in fact, Elin's statement finds support in some of the national data. According to the Pew Research Center, only 82% of adults with incomes of $30,000 or less access the internet, as compared to 98% of adults earning $75,000 or more, and many low-income adults only access the internet through their cell phones.[1] As that research further shows, 26% of adults with an income of less than $30,000 and 20% of adults with an income between $30,000-49,000 access the internet solely through a wireless connection, although only 6% of adults who make over $75,000 do so.[2] Looking at the same data for certain racial and ethnic groups, 25% of Latino and 23% of African American adults access the internet solely through a smartphone. Those figures, when combined with the reality that more gateways to education and employment are most easily accessed online, create a need for wireless technologies that are built out into low-income and minority communities and provide affordable broadband access.

The panel discussion also centered upon the federal Lifeline program and its potential role in fostering broadband access through no-cost or low-cost wireless access. Lifeline is a federal program that provides eligible telecommunication carriers (ETCs) with $9.25/month/line, and with that funding many wireless ETCs provide no-cost voice, text, and data plans to qualifying households. States can also contribute, as California has done. Those additional state funds allow ETCs to increase the quality of the Lifeline service offerings available to eligible households in a particular state. Barry Hobbins remarked that one glaring aspect of the digital divide is a lack of consumer awareness regarding the Lifeline program. "Of the 39 million households eligible in this country," Barry noted, "only about 10 million participate." That's less than one third of eligible households participating in the program.

Ultimately, the panelists further agreed that solving the digital divide will require a convergence between what policymakers and target low-income households view as important when it comes to wireless service. As Sherry Lichtenberg observed, "Low-income households have very different ideas and needs for wireless access than policymakers do." Achieving better alignment between those two perspectives could go a long way toward giving those most adversely affected by the digital divide the wireless technologies presenting the greatest economic and educational opportunities.

[1] https://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/internet-broadband/
[2] Id.