For going on three years, the Urban League has collaborated with the Atlanta Public Schools and collaborative community partners to address an urgent challenge: the literacy gap among our young people.
Now it’s time to mobilize an alliance of educators, businesses, churches, elected officials, and civic activists to answer another crisis: the digital divide between those with the broadband connectivity and technical competence to participate in the Information Age and those who are left out and left behind. With the enactment of President Biden’s infrastructure initiative, including an historic $65 billion for broadband, we have an unprecedented opportunity to translate the promise of universal connectivity into a living reality in all of our communities. The infrastructure program delivers necessary investments, including at least $100 million for broadband coverage across Georgia, including the estimated 649,000 Georgians without it.
As long as this broadband buildout prioritizes connecting unserved rural areas, including those that are predominantly Black, we can finally provide broadband access to the 10% of Georgians who don’t have high-speed internet available.
But getting families signed up and connected where connectivity is already available is the more intractable challenge. Three-quarters of all unconnected households nationwide actually have service available at their doorstep but still don’t connect.
This is where a civic alliance – from corporate suites to the city streets – must make the difference, from the planning stage that must begin right now to the grassroots organizing and house-to-house outreach that may take years to complete. In a giant step forward, the new Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) will help 3,187,000 low-income Georgians – 31% of our state’s population – afford internet access. As with health
care, housing and nutritional programs, our federal government is seeking to address affordable internet access for every citizen. This governmental effort is a major, if mostly unheralded victory, for the civil rights community that championed the idea as a forthright and far-reaching way to close the digital divide.
Now, as with every advance in civil rights – from school desegregation to voting rights and fair housing – we need to bring the gains to the grassroots and remain vigilant against losing ground. Even with a federal Emergency Broadband Benefit and subsidized service by broadband providers, 71% of adults without home internet still have not subscribed .
In low-income urban communities of color, much of the reluctance could be based on an understandable distrust of established institutions, from business to government. Too often, public and private programs, from medical research to mortgage loans, have made offers that turned out to be detrimental to Black families and communities. We need to broadly inform and educate affected communities and convince the skeptics that this offer is no mirage. Atlanta’s 22.4% poverty rate and housing crisis also make people cautious about committing to broadband subscriptions at any price and for many low income households and unskilled workers internet is simply not an option when monthly income is unstable – especially since the COVID 19 pandemic hit. After all, home internet can be aspirational and for many just not possible when you’re struggling to make rent and keep a roof over your head and food on the table. Broadband connectivity and housing security go hand in hand.
We also need to widely explain the importance of connecting to the internet and knowing how to navigate it. With 800,000 people in our region struggling with basic literacy, the need for digital literacy is an unsurprising but urgent challenge. Digital literacy is vital for families to have access to employment opportunities, education, and community resources.
With all the challenges in our metropolitan area, we must not throw up our hands in despair. Rather, we must roll up our sleeves and devote more muscle to closing the racial wealth gap. Promoting digital literacy can make a difference.
As with so many pressing priorities – vaccinations, voter registration, childcare, rapid re-employment, job upskilling, literacy programs, and signing people up for healthcare, child
nutrition and the Earned Income Tax credit — we need to enlist community and faith-based leaders to help. These leaders are the ones people know and trust where they live, work, worship, and do business: from churches, schools, small businesses such as barbershops, restaurants, coffee shops, and laundromats, to civic and community groups. With everyone engaged in this effort, we can seize this opportunity now! Fortunately, the infrastructure program devotes $2.75 billion to digital inclusion efforts. We must demand that these resources are equitably invested with priority to people of color and others in low income and rural communities that need these resources most.
These investments represent a rare and remarkable advance in public policy. But as Vernon Jordan, the former National Urban League president and Atlanta native used to say, “Policies absent people have no meaning.”
After years of fighting for federal funding for digital equity, we finally have the policies. Now we need to motivate and mobilize the people and small businesses of Georgia to connect with the high-speed internet that can transform their lives.
Nancy Flake Johnson is the President and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Atlanta.