Johnson: Pandemic lesson

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Two years ago, a once-in-a-century pandemic abruptly forced the lives of Americans online. As Internet usage increased, America’s broadband networks passed the stress test, and for families with a home connection, broadband was the “system that actually worked.”

But the pandemic has also underscored the urgency of reaching those still unconnected – and produced a roadmap for getting there. Broadband infrastructure is necessary, but far from sufficient – ​​and our even greater challenge is to create the cultural and educational infrastructure to empower and inspire every American to go online.

It starts with the strategy that has outperformed other advanced nations: large-scale private investment—$70 billion to $80 billion a year—that makes broadband accessible to 97% of our nation’s households. It is a remarkable achievement.

“American exceptionalism” may be an overused phrase, but the pandemic has proven that this uniquely American approach works. While traffic jumped 20-40% at the start of the pandemic and heavily regulated European networks crumbled, American networks remained resilient. Broadband prices remained stable, even as inflation rose. And American Internet speeds have increased.

Today, historic federal investments build on these private sector foundations. With $65 billion for broadband expansion in the bipartisan Infrastructure Act, states must spend the money wisely to connect unserved areas, while avoiding the waste and scandals that have marred previous broadband programs. Federal construction.

But the past two years have also taught us that we can’t just get out of the digital divide. While 97% of Americans live in neighborhoods already served by broadband networks, only 77% of all Americans are subscribers. Only 71% of African Americans and 65% of Hispanics have home broadband, as do 57% of low-income people.

Broadband providers have helped close this adoption gap with low-income programs that have connected more than 14 million Americans. In dozens of cities, providers have worked with school systems to connect families in need so children can learn from home. The Federal Government’s Emergency Broadband Benefit has also taken a big step, connecting more than 9 million homes.

Building on that progress, the FCC’s new Affordable Connectivity Program is offering up to $30 a month to subsidize home broadband service for every family earning up to 200% of the poverty level. That’s nearly 30% of all families nationwide. With private subsidies, broadband will be virtually free for all low-income Americans.

But offering broadband, even for free, is not a panacea. In a recent study in Philadelphia, only 31% of households were even aware of low-cost provider plans, and only 13% were aware of federal assistance programs. Distrust, language barriers, housing insecurity, social alienation and disbelief that internet access can significantly improve their lives also fuel hesitation and skepticism. Seventy-one percent of offline adults say they’re just not interested in signing up, no matter the cost.

Huge gaps in digital literacy – one in three working adults lack adequate digital skills – are also holding back adoption. Making broadband universally available and affordable won’t solve our digital divide if we don’t also give our unconnected neighbors the digital skills to navigate telehealth apps, virtual education tools and online job opportunities. line.

Convincing Americans left behind by the digital economy that a broadband connection is worth the risk and effort of venturing into uncharted territory is not a technological challenge or an engineering problem. It’s about sparking curiosity, inspiring optimism in the belief that a connection – and the skills to use it – can fundamentally improve lives.

It will take an all-out, door-to-door, person-to-person campaign. We need to equip and invest in advocates like Wanda Dudley, who leveraged a local digital skills program to help enroll older adults in her Washington, DC, neighborhood with the promise that broadband could provide them with better health care, family connectivity and improved quality of life .

We now need to replicate these local successes on a larger scale; a bipartisan Congress and President have given us a chance to do so if we simply bring the courage and creativity to meet the multidimensional challenge.


Broderick Johnson is executive vice president of Comcast and former secretary to President Obama’s cabinet.

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