COVID-19 has ushered in a new understanding of how vital an affordable high-speed internet connection is for accessing critical services – from healthcare and education to employment opportunities and small businesses. While the data is lacking to precisely measure the exact number of Americans who are not connected, it’s estimated that at least 30 million Americans live in areas without access to quality high-speed internet. Heartland Forward wants to close the digital divide, to ensure that everyone in the Heartland has the internet service they need to not just survive, but to thrive in the digital age.
Heartland Forward has created a multi-year, multi-pronged initiative, Connecting the Heartland, that includes a new workshop series to bring together decision-makers and influencers from the Beltway with the problem-solvers and doers in the Heartland who are working to expand high-speed internet access.
Last week, we held our first workshop, co-hosted by the National Urban League and Land O’Lakes, where we spoke with FCC Acting Chair Jessica Rosenworcel about the new Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program intended to help struggling households afford high-speed internet service at home in the wake of the pandemic. It was also here where we began discussing what it will take to get to a long-term solution.
We learned a great deal from our conversation. A few immediate takeaways came to the forefront:
First, the Federal Government’s EBB funding program is an important step in the right direction, but the program’s success will depend on planning and coordination among state and local stakeholders. The FCC is working to develop a toolkit of resources for community organizations to help get the word out. However, the program’s reach and ultimate success will hinge, in no small part, on local level outreach to help people find and use the resources. This means overcoming the trust barriers that keep many from connecting. As our speaker, Blair Levin from the National Urban League said, it’s “not enough to simply provide the subsidy. There’s a need for capacity building and a need for digital readiness.”
Second, achieving success for this short-term program is critical for helping to shape the long-term solution in our country. So, it is imperative that those involved take note of lessons learned, seek out best-practices and share them – with other states, and with federal policy makers. When it comes to federal funding for affordable high-speed internet access, we don’t yet have a long-term funding or policy solution at this point. When the EBB program funding either times out after COVID-19 or runs out of money, we’ll need to pursue more permanent and robust funding from Congress, the Lifeline Program, or other sources to fill the gap in EBB’s absence. We need to proactively lay the foundation for that more long-term solution now, and we need to learn from the work we’re doing to build off it and improve for the future.
Lastly, in order to reach our goal of accessible, affordable high-speed internet in the Heartland, we need to think of this effort like a campaign. We are working against the clock. It will take creativity and true grassroots, person-to-person, outreach to get eligible families connected and set up to access essential virtual services and opportunities. To reach people who are not online, we’ll need to innovate when we do our outreach and promote resources on non-digital channels and through accessible community spaces. We also need to keep in mind that we may have a shorter window than we’d like while the EBB funding lasts, and we need to act now to maximize the reach and effectiveness of the program as it is, while working in the background to develop more long-term solutions.
COVID-19 may have sparked the nation-wide push for digital equality, but this work will go far beyond this moment. High-speed internet is not just a luxury in the digital age – it’s a necessity – and at Heartland Forward we are determined to be a part of the movement to make access to high-speed internet a reality across the Heartland.