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Did Pandemic Response Funding Help Americans Connect in a Crisis?

On Wednesday December 15, 2021, we co-hosted a virtual roundtable with the National Academy of Public Administration to examine if pandemic response funding helped underserved households stay connected in a crisis. Since COVID-19 hit the country, it became clear that underserved communities continue to face challenges connecting to home internet, which impacts their ability to learn and work remotely during the pandemic.

Our panel of experts weighed in on the effectiveness of the three main sources of broadband assistance program funding — the Coronavirus Relief Fund, the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program (EBB), and the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund.

Here are the issues they raised:
 

Infrastructure is important but affordability is still the main barrier for households to connect to the internet. 

Evan Marwell, CEO of EducationSuperHighway, stated that while past emphasis has been placed on a lack of infrastructure, “affordability is now really the primary issue inhibiting people from getting on the internet.” He added, “there are still 7 million households without any infrastructure available to them, but there are 18 million that have internet available but can't afford it.” The lack of affordable home internet during the pandemic left underserved families at a major disadvantage. Marwell added, “when the pandemic hit, 50 million students got sent home, 15 million of them did not have internet access, and therefore didn't have a seat in the classroom.” However, schools across the country were able to use the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF) to connect three million students within the first eight months of the pandemic. 

Communities of color also face hurdles to accessing the internet, especially in rural areas. According to Dr. Dominque Harrison, author of Affordability & Availability: Expanding Broadband in the Black Rural South, “for communities of color, the primary barriers to broad access are availability and affordability. And this was especially true when examining broadband in the black rural south. These barriers exist for people in both metropolitan and rural areas.” These challenges extended to not just a lack of infrastructure in more rural areas, but also affordability of home internet and devices, like tablets and laptops. Increasing awareness of available programs, like the EBB program, can help improve equity in internet access.  

Tackling digital literacy and sign-ups requires coalitions and partnerships. 

Closing the digital divide involves addressing unique challenges, like enrollment assistance and digital literacy. Angela Siefer, the Executive Director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, noted that “one of the solutions that we saw develop organically around the country is this idea of a digital navigator…the folks that are on the ground that are teaching digital literacy, helping their neighbors get signed up for the low cost offers.” Additionally, local governments and community organizations should tap into State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds (SLFRF) as well as the CRF, which have greater program flexibility to help improve digital literacy and purchase devices, like laptops and mobile phones. 

Building trust with eligible individuals that are hesitant to sign up for programs is also crucial. Panelists noted that the benefit is provided by internet providers, not a more trusted source like a social services provider. This is a key gap that can be filled by community organizations, who can build awareness of the program and help people apply. The benefit of partnerships extends even further. Marwell said his organization uses data from private internet service providers to determine which households in school districts are connected. This partnership makes it easier to identify gaps in connectivity and ensure students do not get overlooked. 

Data and adoption mapping have had past challenges, but improvements are on the horizon. 

Evan Feinman, the Chief Broadband Officer for Virginia, emphasized the critical role data plays in closing the digital divide, stating that, “you need to have a good map and you need to have good data before you can start solving the infrastructure problem.” The quality of data available can influence where future investments are made and help ensure underserved communities get connected. There’s also been recent efforts by the federal government to improve mapping used by the Federal Communications Commission. Marwell explained that the “maps count one address in a census block being served as the entire census block being served. And so, there's now broad agreement that those maps don't work.” 

Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program shows enrollment rates are increasing, but barriers remain to ensure broadband programs reach those who need it. 

Panelists noted that there is rich data on EBB recipients that’s updated monthly and shows various demographic and geographic data. The EBB program has a 20% adoption rate, but enrollment is growing steadily – particularly in areas where households had an existing internet connection but struggled to afford it. Dr. Harrison noted, however, that enrollment is not evenly distributed among states, adding that, “South Florida, Detroit, Chicago, and New York City have all seen very strong growth in enrollment since June 2021 as opposed to other states around the country.” 

According to Marwell, the EBB program has not been effective at signing up people without an existing internet connection. Part of the issue is the irony of the enrollment process, which is primarily done online. And though there is a paper application, a report by the Government Accountability Office found that two thirds of the ones submitted were incomplete. Siefer also noted that another enrollment issue is the predictability of the benefit. It’s not clear how long will the benefit last, and people are hesitant to sign up for something that they may not be able to afford a year later if the benefit ends.
 

This co-sponsored activity does not constitute or imply an endorsement of NAPA or any of its products or services by the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, or the United States government.

Remote video URL
Transcript

Panelists

  • Kathryn de Wit - Director of broadband initiatives at the Pew Charitable Trusts 
  • Evan Marwell - CEO of EducationSuperHighway
  • Dr. Dominique Harrison - Author of Affordability & Availability: Expanding Broadband in the Black Rural South
  • Evan Feinman - Chief Broadband Advisor Office of Governor Ralph S. Northam and Executive Director of Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission
  • Angela Siefer - Executive Director, National Digital Inclusion Alliance 
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