How the infrastructure act aims to take on digital discrimination

The FCC is considering adopting recommendations that would direct state and local governments to take a number of actions to address disparities in broadband service affecting minorities and lower-income people.

The FCC is considering adopting recommendations that would direct state and local governments to take a number of actions to address disparities in broadband service affecting minorities and lower-income people. JGI/Jamie Grill via Getty Images

The FCC is considering adopting a set of recommendations for state and local governments that would address disparities in broadband service.

As part of what could end up being a groundbreaking effort in the Biden administration’s infrastructure act to address the nation’s digital divide, an equity task force created by the Federal Communications Commission is recommending that state and local governments take a number of actions to address disparities in broadband service affecting minorities and lower-income people.

The recommendations are the product of a little-known provision tucked into the bipartisan infrastructure bill. Under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Congress made what President Biden has called a historic investment by providing more than $100 billion in federal funding to bring broadband to all Americans. Of that, the bill allocates $42.5 billion to states to build broadband in areas of the country with poor or no service and another $2.75 billion in state grants to develop plans and programs to promote digital equity.

The provision requires the FCC, which regulates the broadband industry, to “take steps to ensure that all people of the United States benefit from equal access to broadband internet service.”

To make good on the mandate, the commission at its monthly meeting Wednesday is expected in a vote to signal that they are moving toward sending to states and localities the recommendations of the equity task force. The suggestions the FCC could adopt include ideas like not giving broadband companies permits unless they address disparities and providing subsidies to help lower-income people get broadband service.

One of the issues that Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, would like to see addressed is so-called digital redlining, in which lower-income or minority neighborhoods are more likely to have poor or no broadband service. She said a financial incentive to provide better service in less wealthier areas could help eliminate the inequity.

“Because of the potential for profits, [internet service providers] aren’t putting the best wiring in poor neighborhoods like they're putting in the wealthier neighborhoods. And they’re not really maintaining them as well as they do in the richer neighborhoods,” she said. “I don’t think our ISPs are full of racists. I think it's about profit.” 

To try to address the issue, the task force is recommending actions like requiring companies to provide equitable service in return for being given permission to use public rights of way to build broadband. 

“Agreements to use the rights of way should reflect that the privilege of using public assets comes with an obligation to provide a benefit to the public, which includes ensuring that all members of the community have equal access to broadband, subject to economic and technological feasibility,” the FCC task force said. 

Other recommendations from the task force include encouraging state and local governments to create more competition between internet providers to lower costs and to provide subsidies—on top of the $30-a-month stipend provided under the federal Affordable Connectivity Program—to help lower-income people get broadband service.

To what extent states and localities will follow suit, however, remains to be seen, given states are not required to follow the recommendations to receive the infrastructure act’s broadband dollars, said Nicol Turner Lee, the task force’s vice chair and director of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation.

Still, she said the recommendations are significant because it will draw attention from state and local governments to the causes of inequitable broadband service. “We haven't really had a dialogue around what constitutes the type of discriminatory practices when it comes to broadband access,” she said.

The FCC’s efforts could also put pressure on states and localities to act. “They should enact the recommendations,” Lee said, “if they want to sort of stay off the front page of the newspaper. They should do the best that they can to make sure they're engaging in inclusive and equitable practices, as they are using federal resources to build out broadband.”

“City leaders are at different stages in understanding the digital divide and how it affects their residents,” Lena Geraghty, director of sustainability and innovation for the National League of Cities’ Center for City Solutions, said in a statement to Route Fifty. “By having model proposals to consider, they have a playbook to follow on how to approach the issue in a collaborative manner with a wide range of stakeholders.”

She highlighted a recommendation by the task force for cities to work with broadband providers and the community to identify areas where digital inequity exists. Officials in Shreveport, Louisiana, for example, put sensors on garbage trucks to figure out how broadband speeds differ across the city.

In addition, the involvement of the FCC could give cities more leverage to push internet service providers to provide more equitable service. “Ultimately, cities, towns and villages need ISPs at the table and involved in the solutions to make progress on preventing and eliminating digital discrimination,” Geraghty said. “The Working Group’s report gives city leaders additional support to encourage this to happen.”

At next week’s meeting, the commission is expected to seek input on whether broadband companies should be held accountable if their business decisions lead to disparities, regardless of their intent. ISPs, for their part, have said they should not be held accountable unless they intentionally tried to discriminate based on race or income.

Dealing with digital inequities has been a high priority for the National League of Cities, which has created its own guide on how cities can address the issue.

A report by the association noted that only 62% of households earning less than $20,000 a year have broadband service, compared to 81.8% of those earning more than $75,000. And nearly half of Americans without broadband in the country are Black, indigenous or other people of color.

Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty.

NEXT STORY: New state and local government financial reporting requirements headed to Biden’s desk

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