Jul 31

Broadband benefit program will help bridge digital divide in Great Lakes cities

As schools prepare for fall online classes, over a million households, particularly in Black communities, lack access to high-speed internet

CLEVELAND (July 31, 2020) – As school districts make plans for online learning this fall, major cities are facing a concerning digital divide, prompting advocacy groups to push for a new federal broadband benefit program as part of the next stimulus package. Negotiations over the next stimulus package press on in Congress, but the fate of the program hangs in the balance.

Under the program, households with a member who qualifies for Lifeline, free or reduced school lunches, or is recently unemployed, would receive a benefit to put toward the monthly price of internet service. The coalition is also urging that businesses with 10 employees or fewer who meet certain income requirements also be considered for the benefit.

“In Cleveland, we are facing significant challenges. More than 76,000 households still do not have cable, DSL or fiber internet subscriptions at home, and we suspect a number of minority-owned small businesses face similar challenges,” said Marty McGann, Greater Cleveland Partnership’s Executive Vice President of Advocacy and Strategic Initiatives.

Greater Cleveland Partnership, the nation’s largest metropolitan chamber of commerce, teamed up with other chambers as part of the Great Lakes Metro Chambers Coalition to advocate for the broadband benefit program.

In Pittsburgh, over 200,000 households do not have high-speed internet, with 25% of the households without internet concentrated in 8 of the 10 counties in the southwest region. Detroit is in a similar position, with the lowest rate of internet connectivity in the country, according to the coalition.

The high costs of individual and residentially-based internet, and uneven broadband service throughout many Great Lakes cities, are outputs of digital redlining—a practice of disinvestment in low-income communities.

“For our cities, this practice has resulted largely in non-white communities facing a lack of essential broadband service. Whether to learn virtually, access health care, or run a business, access to high-speed, reliable internet is a critical factor in how our region has fared during the current crisis,” McGann said.

“If we don’t address this redlining, the impacts are far-reaching for decades to come when you consider the impact on education. Schools are moving toward online learning, but without the internet, they will fall dangerously behind other children in affluent areas, putting children at a significant disadvantage,” McGann said.

The US House of Representatives, in its passage of the HEROES Act, included a provision for a broadband benefit program. Another coronavirus stimulus bill—the HEALS Act—was introduced by the Senate last week but does not include specific provisions to bridge the digital divide. The two chambers continue to negotiate the outlines of a stimulus bill to pass a package before the scheduled August recess.