A Comcast truck outside the Capitol. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

By Lawrence Framme

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way Americans learn, work and interact.

In a matter of weeks, kids suddenly had to take their classes online, family members could only visit virtually and coworkers could only meet on Zoom. These changes meant that universal access to fast and secure internet became a necessity, not a luxury. As a former Virginia secretary of economic development, I know firsthand that the economic future of Virginia lies in providing full opportunity to all sections of our economy and the demographics within them. 

Today, nearly 15 million American families struggle to obtain fast broadband access because they cannot afford it. Millions of others have no access at all. The private sector has invested billions in broadband infrastructure, yet we still leave countless Americans without meaningful access to this necessity. 

The problem gets worse the poorer you are. According to the Pew Research Center, among families making between $30,000 and $50,000 a year, 26 percent do not have broadband at home. For households earning less than $30,000 a year, 43 percent do not have broadband at home. 

Communities of color are disproportionately impacted. Recent analysis by Third Way found that broadband availability falls from 83 percent in counties that are less than 25 percent African American to 60 percent in counties that are at least 75 percent African American.  

We need to prioritize funding a permanent broadband benefit that will help these families get this economic necessity now. 

The Biden Administration has committed to ensuring that every American household and business has access to broadband internet. This is outlined in the American Jobs Plan. But we need to get the details right.

Some proposals call for public financing for network build out in wealthy suburbs that already have high internet access and multiple competing providers. This is laudatory, but we need to spend our limited tax dollars where they are needed the most. Let’s spend these dollars on low-income access now. We need to redirect these funds to cure the root of the affordability problem in the digital divide. 

The National Urban League’s Lewis Latimer Plan for Digital Equity calls for a permanent broadband benefit that helps low income families afford broadband that supports essential services: K-12 learning, job search and training and interview tools, among others. This is where we need to spend our taxpayer’s internet dollars now, not in the wealthy suburbs. 

Yes, many providers offer entry level plans for $10-20 and there are federal government programs that aim to address affordability. But these are clearly inadequate. The National Urban Institute’s Plan writes that Lifeline, the chief federal program that helps people pay for broadband, is “deeply flawed with too small a subsidy, ineffective distribution” and relies on an unsustainable and regressive taxation system. The December 2020 COVID-19 Stimulus Package, which expanded the benefit to $50 per month, is not permanent. It will not close the gap with people who already could not afford access.  

All of which is to say Congress needs to get serious about prioritizing a permanent broadband benefit for low-income families well before they start building another network in areas that are already provided for. 

We need to guarantee that all communities have access to affordable broadband. With broadband and internet becoming essential online tools for work, school, health care and even socializing — now is the time to make the necessary decisions that invest in permanent subsidies that close the digital divide, end the affordability gap and provide the resulting economic opportunity to all our citizens.

Lawrence Framme was Virginia’s secretary of economic development during Gov. L. Douglas Wilder’s administration. He lives in Richmond.