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Digital Divide

Dec 10 2020

by Larry Irving, previously published in the September 2020 issue of Tax Credit Advisor magazine

The Need for Free Broadband

It is time we treat access to the internet as a basic component of multifamily infrastructure, as critical as water, electricity and heat.

The Coronavirus pandemic demonstrates conclusively that affordable housing residents need access to Broadband Internet so they can remain safely at home yet still engage in work and school, have access to food and government benefits, and even pay rent without leaving their unit. People’s lives—especially the lives of the very young and the very old, and everyone in between with compromised immune systems—may depend on the ability to be online.

Unfortunately, Broadband Internet is not universally available in America, nor is it universally affordable, especially to many if not most low-income people, resulting in a digital divide:

  • 92% of middle-income-plus households ($75,000 and up) have broadband access, compared with only 56% of low-income households ($30,000 or less);
  • For 35% of all children, 39% of Hispanic children and 45% of poor-household children (income under $30,000), doing their homework means having to access the Internet via a cellphone;
  • One in four low income teens don’t have access to a home computer;
  • 10% of Americans are not online at all;
  • 27% of seniors are not online;
  • 18% of Americans with incomes below $30,000 are not online; and
  • 87 million Americans lack access to Broadband entirely.

Up to now, for the quarter-century since the Internet’s 1995 commercialization, the digital divide between those with access to high-speed digital internet and those without was viewed solely as a problem of education and economic mobility. With the COVID-19 pandemic, and the preferred new norm of staying isolated at home, internet access also is crucial to public health. In low-income neighborhoods with digital deserts, or in senior living where seniors are techno-averse, access to vital pandemic functions like online learning and telehealth services is undermined severely.

As the frontier of digital divide reform shifts from the school or job site to the home, large multifamily owners and managers must become part of the front-line health-oriented response. Owner-operators of affordable housing need fast, effective solutions to connect residents, to make their residents healthier, and to help their residents stay healthy.

At the same time, at least part of the focus of digital access interventions can and must shift to the affordable housing space, by updating existing federal programs designed for a pre-pandemic world. The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) E-rate (discounted rates for schools and libraries) and Lifeline (subsidized rates for families for telephone or Internet connections) need to be extended to the technical infrastructure of affordable housing, which by blending educational and housing expertise can provide creative solutions, both to reduce health insecurity and to narrow the digital divide.

Complementary change will be required in the educational space. As many schools reopen remotely, or blend in-person and virtual learning in a hybrid education model, students and their families need Broadband at home now more than ever. Though this can be costly, thinking across sectors and pooling sectoral knowledge can create synergistic solutions. Rather than simply paying for connectivity in schools, E-rate and programs like it should focus on connectivity issues outside of schools and into students’ homes, for instance, in these ways:

  • In addition to putting a broadband pipe into public institutions (e.g., libraries), which confines WiFi access to those in that one building, use a housing or telecommunications subsidy to bring a gigabyte pipe into a multifamily property, then give all residents Internet access at a more affordable rate.
  • On the demand side, boost the monthly Lifeline voucher from its current roughly $10 per month per family to $30 to $50 a month, then aggregate this on-site resident demand into a landlord-installed and maintained broadband throughout the complex.
  • Recruit the internet’s winners into giving back (and serendipitously expanding their market reach), as in Amazon’s $6 per month Prime rate for qualifying customers with EBT or Medicaid cards, possibly packaged into subsidy payments or offered as a property-based above-the-line operating expense.

The pandemic has demonstrated conclusively that Broadband is a key component of any health-secure housing and managers and capital providers are innovating its use rapidly to protect the health of their residents, employees and communities. Now is the time to capitalize that momentum into laws and resources by developing, advocating for, and enacting policies and practices that will assure health-secure housing and broadband become synonymous terms.