Progress in closing the digital divide

The world has moved online. With just an internet connection, one can access a vast range of digital services, educational materials, and economic opportunities unimaginable by previous generations. Yet, many people who need these opportunities the most – such as low income people of color – have still been left behind. It’s clear that as everyday activities increasingly go online, consistent and affordable access to the internet – especially for those living in conditions of economic distress or hardship – is more important than ever. While some have called for the government to step in to create a new entitlement, the private sector is showing it is increasingly capable of stepping up to the challenge.  

Take for instance the newest expansion of Comcast’s Internet Essentials. The Internet Essentials program has expanded from school children who qualified for National School Lunch Program; to now include veterans, senior citizens, people with disabilities, and many more. Internet Essentials is now announcing their aim to provide affordable, high-speed internet to all low-income households in their service areas. This is a huge step forward in expanding Internet access to all Americans without creating a new Federal entitlement program. According to Comcast’s news release, this latest expansion of the Internet Essentials program will more than double the number of qualifying households in their service area who have access to the Internet. 

Cox offers a similar program, Connect2Compete that is open to low-income households with a child enrolled in a K-12 school program. The Connect2Compete program is open to households who are a part of the National School Lunch Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or who are a part of public housing. Across the spectrum, ISPs provide similar programs, including AT&T, CenturyLink, RCN, and others. 

Every day we are, increasingly, becoming a digital society. Things like driver’s licenses, unemployment benefits, healthcare, and school lunch programs are being handled ‘online’ rather than by traveling to various agencies and filing paperwork in person. Increasingly, students need access to the Internet to compete homework and advance their education. The Atlantic reported last year: 

The homework gap can have major consequences, with some studies suggesting that teens who lack access to a computer at home are less likely to graduate from high school than their more technologically equipped peers. The “challenge to complete homework in safe, predictable, and productive environments can have lifelong impacts on their ability to achieve their full potential,” wrote John Branam, who runs an initiative to provide lacking teens with internet access, in an op-ed for The Hechinger Report last year.

Market advocates and conservatives should look to robust Internet access programs provided by the ISPs as the success stories they are – and as a blueprint for future expansions of internet access to low-income households across America. 

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