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DC’s Public Knowledge to Congress: Close the digital divide

Check out key points from testimony before Congress by Public Knowledge President and CEO Christopher Lewis, including a look at broadband equity, digital redlining and more.

The Capitol. (Photo by Flickr user Adam Fagen, used under a Creative Commons license)

Editor’s note: With a broadband buildout on the agenda for President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill, digital access is a topic in Congress this week.

A House subcommittee hearing on broadband equity Thursday will include testimony from Christoper Lewis, president and CEO of D.C.-based digital advocacy nonprofit Public Knowledge.

It’s a timely topic in the pandemic and the testimony illuminates some terms that will be important going forward, like the Emergency Broadband Benefit and digital redlining. So we’re sharing highlights from Lewis’ remarks.

As Lewis states, “Before the pandemic, broadband was already the essential communications tool of the 21st century, but the pandemic has brought into clear focus just how essential broadband is, and how persistent the digital divide is.”

In this guest post below, we’ve pulled out key excerpts from Lewis’ prepared testimony, with each section title offering a recommendation for Congress.

Broadband is an essential utility

In the CARES Act, which passed the Senate unanimously and on a voice vote in the House, Congress included internet access as a utility, defining a “covered utility payment” as “payment for… electricity, gas, water, transportation, telephone or internet access.’ Recently, President Biden’s administration noted that with electricity generations ago, ‘the federal government recognized affordable access is necessary to fully participate in modern society and the modern economy.’ He went on to say that ‘broadband internet is the new electricity,” and we must bring “affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to every American.”

Our nation’s leaders understand that broadband is essential, so our nation’s policies must account for that fact by having the agency that, until recently, oversaw broadband, the Federal Communications Commission, re-engage to ensure all Amercians have access. Doing so will lead to more ubiquitous, robust, reliable, and affordable broadband.

Congress must ensure that broadband is affordable

In order to ensure that everyone can afford broadband, Congress must take steps to increase competition in the marketplace, which will reduce prices. However, even with lower prices, some of our nation’s most vulnerable will still be unable to afford this critical service. For this reason, Congress must create a long-term benefit so that no one, particularly those most in need, is left behind.

Congress must direct the FCC to collect data about the price of broadband

We can’t fix our nation’s affordability problem without understanding it. Congress can take a key first step to promote broadband affordability by passing the Lift America Act, which would, in part, ensure that the FCC is regularly collecting data about the price of broadband. Just as a bipartisan Congress recognized that we need accurate data about where broadband is and isn’t available in order to close the digital divide, so too should it realize that we need data about price to better tailor support programs to close the digital divide.

Congress must foster a competitive broadband marketplace

Municipal networks can also promote competition. Many traditional providers don’t serve areas that do not promise sustained profitability over time, even with deployment funding, so federal funds should be used to encourage local broadband deployment by whatever means necessary. Congress and the FCC have been working to ensure access to broadband for the last two decades. It is no longer enough for us to tell these underserved communities that they must continue to wait. States like Arkansas have realized this fact and have moved to repeal their prohibitions on municipally owned broadband providers.

Congress must create a long-term broadband subsidy for low-income people

Christopher Lewis.

Last year, Congress took an enormous step towards ensuring that low-income households and those struggling financially because of the pandemic can afford to connect by establishing the Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. The fund gave the FCC $3.2 billion to establish an Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) which would provide eligible households with a $50 discount on their broadband service up to six months during the pandemic. However, low-income consumers will still need assistance when the pandemic ends, even if the cost of broadband is eventually decreased through competition. This is why Congress must take steps to create a long-term broadband benefit.

Congress must mandate that providers offer a low-cost option

Congress should also require any entity receiving federal funding to offer a low-cost option for anyone who wants to take advantage of it. Asking beneficiaries of federal funds to help us tackle affordability just makes good sense. These low-cost options will be essential for those who might not qualify for low-income support, but who nevertheless must stretch their budgets in order to afford broadband.

Congress must ensure everyone has access to a device and can learn digital literacy skills

Even if broadband is available and affordable, some consumers may still be left behind because they lack a device or the digital skills necessary to meaningfully use the service. Congress must take action to ensure that these problems are not standing in the way of getting everyone across the nation connected so that all people can fully participate in society.

Congress must ensure universal access to affordable, reliable, high speed internet by banning digital redlining

The same neighborhoods that were once redlined by banks and insurance companies now face similar discrimination by ISPs, which adds to an already substantial digital divide. This practice of investing less in broadband infrastructure in low-income and marginalized communities is called “digital redlining.” There is documented evidence of digital redlining occuring in Cleveland, Oakland, Dallas, Detroit, and Kansas City — and it’s likely far more widespread. Advocates suspect it happens at the outskirts of population centers in urban and rural areas, as well as in Tribal communities and marginalized communities. In the past, we had laws in place that prevented this redlining, requiring that cable and telecommunications providers had an obligation to serve all residents in their franchise of service areas. Congress must ask the FCC to study how widespread this problem is, and take remedial steps to address it.

Promoting universal access to affordable, reliable, high-speed internet is a bipartisan issue

Clearly, we must close the digital divide and as a policy matter, there are concrete steps Congress can take to do so. Communities without affordable broadband, including low-income and marginalized communities, are the ones being hurt by inaction. Members on both sides of the aisle recognize that their constituents cannot partake in modern society without broadband; they recognize that it’s essential. Both Democrats and Republicans included broadband in their infrastructure plans. This is why Congress must come together to ensure universal affordable access to high-speed reliable broadband for everyone.


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