As the White House continues to pursue closing the digital divide between white and Black communities, a panel recommends a key to making this work: collaboration.
Increasing broadband access, specifically to Black urban and rural communities, surfaced as one of the main topics during the National Urban League’s conference at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Northwest. It marked the league’s first in-person gathering Friday, July 22 in more than two years.
An ongoing project stems from a public-private partnership with internet service providers such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon to offer eligible households up to $30 discount per month to receive internet access.
Bret Perkins, senior vice president of external and government affairs with Comcast, said the subsidy comes from the federal government’s $14 billion federal Affordable Connectivity Program.
Along with additional funding such as the $65 billion investment in high-speed internet access from President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, Perkins said “it is game-changing.”
He said the Urban League and other nonprofit organizations should be allowed to receive money to help local communities they serve.
Other recommendations include corporate businesses in the south such as Home Depot or Delta to speak out in support of a law focused on helping those in need.
“This is everybody’s business,” Perkins said.
Dr. Sabrian Dent, president of the Center for Faith, Justice, and Reconciliation based in Richmond, Virginia, said houses of worship suffered during the coronavirus pandemic and became assessed “as nonessential.”
“Faith communities and houses of worship tend to serve the community,” he said. “Thirty percent of Black households do not have access to broadband. That is a very significant number when you think about everything we do with our lives that is connected to what we do online. Faith leaders, religious leaders and civic leaders need to be included in this conversation.”
Although the panelists praised the broadband subsidies coming from the Biden administration, Nancy Flake Johnson asked if the law mandates equity and ensures Black businesses are part of the contracting process.
“That is my biggest concern,” said Flake Johnson, president of the Urban League of Greater Atlanta. “We have an opportunity with all the funds that are going to be spent with infrastructure that we could actually make a dent in closing the racial wealth gap if equity was mandated. No funds flow to the states if your [plans] does not include equity.”
“Equity is part of the plan, but it’s not mandated,” said Joi O. Chaney, senior vice president of policy and advocacy with the National Urban League and who moderated the discussion.
Spencer Overton, president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Northwest, expressed a concern about implementation of the federal government’s $42 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program. Administered by the U.S. Department of Commerce, money will be released in the form of grants to states to construct and expand broadband access in rural and underserved areas.
Part of Overton’s apprehension stems from a report the joint center released in October that notes 38% of Blacks in 152 counties in the rural South lack internet access, compared to 23% of whites. Those states highlighted are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.
“I’m concerned that southern state governments may frankly prioritize [broadband] build out in areas where their political base is and ignore other areas that are unserved [and] not part of their political base,” he said. “I think that’s a huge issue that we need to be on top of.”
It is absolutely necessary that Blacks be informed about this BEAD. We need to be at the table from the very inception of this initiative. If we sleep on this, we will be left behind. I am well aware how money can be shifted and disappear. This is for the benefit for those that are living and for the future generations.
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