OPINION: We Must Close the Digital Wealth Divide

by Shasti Conrad

In Washington State and around the country, the coronavirus pandemic has shown us just how crucial internet access is to everyday life. We’ve relied on the internet to attend school and work and to stay connected with friends and family. It’s difficult to imagine navigating this devastating pandemic without these modern tech advancements. 

Unfortunately, not everyone was able to stay connected during this challenging year. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 700,000 Washingtonians do not have an internet connection in their homes due to obstacles like a lack of affordable broadband options, and an additional 500,000 residents must rely on cell phone data plans. In King County, nearly one in four adults face internet access barriers such as the high cost of internet service plans or connected devices.

Due to these high costs and a lack of access to quality broadband services, King County’s low-income residents fare the worst of all. Families making less than $50,000 per year are five times more likely than wealthy families to not have internet access at home. These disparities disproportionately impact People of Color, who are 1.6 times more likely than white people to not have internet at home. 

Luckily, in the 2021 session in Olympia, Representative Drew Hansen (D-23) was able to get an incredibly comprehensive broadband bill for Washington State through the legislature. This has been an uphill battle that he has engaged in for years, and our state will be better off for his efforts moving forward.

The federal government should take Washington State’s lead and act swiftly to expand broadband access to all. I’m thankful that President Biden has repeatedly emphasized the need to make broadband accessible to everyone in the American Jobs Plan. Washington’s own Sen. Maria Cantwell even helped to secure $7 billion in funding for the FCC’s E-Rate program to help more students connect to online schooling. I’m equally glad to see that groups like the NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA) are bringing attention to our nation’s digital divide and advocating for crucial permanent federal broadband subsidies. 

In addition, private investment in broadband is equally as important as government action. Fortunately, Washington is home to global tech titans whose innovations could make all the difference. In 2019, Amazon launched Project Kuiper to send 3,236 satellites into low Earth orbit and provide broadband access throughout the country. Microsoft, another Washington local, aims to bring affordable broadband access to communities around the world through their Airband initiative on TV “white spaces” or unused gaps between active TV channels. Satellite communications company, Ligado, will also deploy a nationwide network on this unused spectrum to support 5G and IoT (Internet of Things) services. Washingtonians should encourage and support this kind of groundbreaking innovation that can help deliver fast, high-quality, and low-cost broadband to all our communities.

The pandemic shone a light on many social inequities negatively impacting Black, Indigenous, and Communities of Color, low income communities, students, and elders. Digital equity has been an issue for the South End for many years, which is unacceptable in a region with so much innovation. In the 21st century, it is unthinkable that anyone could be fully integrated into the world and economy without internet access, especially in our community where major tech companies reside. While libraries, schools, and private companies have been handing out hotspots and are providing some technical and use support, these are not long-term solutions. There is still a gap in providing help for families in using the internet and getting connected to other devices, digital skills, and learning resources. We need to do everything we can to ensure that low-income communities have the same access and opportunities as wealthier areas. Permanent federal broadband subsidies combined with tech innovation from private companies will help us finally bridge the digital divide.

We should call Sen. Cantwell, thank her for her work on this, and ask her to continue pushing for digital equity, while rallying to ensure that this passes through Congress. 

Shasti Conrad is the first WOC chair for the Martin Luther King County Democrats in Washington State, the fourth-largest county party organization in the country. In 2020, Shasti founded two organizations — Opportunity PAC and CTRL Z. Among her other credentials are serving as a senior staff assistant in the White House during the first term of the Obama administration and as a briefings manager on the 2012 campaign.

📸 Featured Image: “click asiby Amelia Wells via Flickr; used here under a Creative Commons license.

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