Erie Voice: How the infrastructure bill can close northwest Pa.'s digital divide

·4 min read

With the stroke of a pen, President Joe Biden recently signed into law a historic, bipartisan infrastructure bill — and laid the groundwork for finally conquering Pennsylvania’s digital divide.

Elspeth Koehle
Elspeth Koehle

Spent wisely, the bill’s $65 billion broadband package — including $14 billion to help low-income families afford home internet service — could do for internet connectivity what FDR’s Rural Electrification Act did for electric power nearly a century ago. And not a moment too soon: The pandemic’s acceleration of virtual learning, telehealth, and remote work makes broadband more essential than ever.

But signing ceremonies and celebratory speeches are the easy part. Getting unconnected families wired and connected will take years of hard work. We need a plan for getting it right — and the communities most impacted by the digital divide need a seat at the table.

Let’s start with the numbers. Roughly 99% of Erie County homes have broadband available. Ninety-five percent have world-class, ultra-fast networks right at their doorstep. Yet fewer than 70% of households in the county are actually connected to home broadband service. Black, Latino, and low-income families are less likely to have home internet than wealthier, white peers.

More: Jacqueline Spry sees $76M from American Rescue Plan as 'historic opportunity' to help Erie

For neighborhoods and rural communities still waiting for high-speed broadband, the infrastructure bill commits $42 billion to build and extend new networks. And it includes some clear, really smart guidelines to make sure the money gets spent effectively.

First in line will be homes that have no broadband service available at all. These federal dollars will be manna from heaven for more remote communities in rural Pennsylvania still waiting for a digital on-ramp.

Next in line will be “underserved” areas where the only broadband options are old, outdated, slow technologies like DSL. The infrastructure bill will help these areas upgrade to lightning-fast fiber, cable, or fixed wireless networks — the kind most homes here in Erie already benefit from.

But for areas that already have super-fast networks available, just building more infrastructure won’t actually solve the digital divide. In Erie, as in most cities and suburbs nationwide, our game plan — and resources — instead need to focus on broadband adoption.

Here, the infrastructure bill’s new Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) is a groundbreaking step forward. Building on the progress and lessons from a decade of private sector low-income

Paired with providers' low-income programs, the ACP means home broadband service is essentially now free for low-income families. That’s a transformative change.

But broadband adoption is a much bigger challenge than just affordability. It may be tempting to celebrate the new ACP as a silver bullet and declare the problem solved. But anyone who has spent time working and organizing in low-income communities understands there’s a complicated web of barriers keeping broadband holdouts offline.

Some don’t have the digital skills needed to sign up and confidently join the online world. For others, language barriers stand in the way. Lack of trust is a big problem too, as eligible individuals are skeptical of “free” offers that sound too good to be true.

The largest challenge may just be helping digital holdouts better understand the benefits that come with getting online. Seventy-one percent of unconnected adults say they’re just not interested in signing up. We can change that mindset by talking about all the doors a broadband connection opens, from telehealth doctors' visits to video chats with faraway grandkids.

But this kind of evangelism happens one conversation at a time, and is most effective coming from trusted voices already present in the community. Teachers, librarians, pastors, community organizers — we have more credibility than any Beltway bureaucrat, and we’re best positioned to lead the work of getting our neighbors signed up.

The infrastructure bill will send the state of Pennsylvania federal dollars to stand up a digital equity grant program, empowered to fund these kind of outreach and education campaigns.

Erie needs to get to work developing a concrete plan for putting these funds to work. We need everyone at the table — Democrats and Republicans, elected officials and businesses, community leaders and nonprofits. And we need real accountability — measuring ourselves by how many families get connected, not how many tweets and press releases we put out patting ourselves on the back.

The infrastructure bill gives Erie an unprecedented chance to end our digital divide. It’s up to us to seize this chance.

Elspeth 'Kate' Koehle is a civic activist and advocacy coordinator for Erie County United.

This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: How the infrastructure bill can close northwest Pa.'s digital divide

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