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Congress needs to fund Biden's $100 billion plan to close the digital divide

The Biden administration has proposed an expansion of internet access to unserved and underserved communities, including the more than 40 percent of rural Americans who lack high-speed access, where the Latinx community is growing.
18 May 2021 – 09:29 AM EDT
A student follows along remotely with their regular school teacher's online live lesson. Crédito: Getty Images

The Covid pandemic hit the Latinx community with tremendous force health-wise, economically, and in education. Except there is no vaccine for the education crisis which exacerbated the ongoing “digital divide” or as I call it, the Tech-Edquity gap, which impacts the ability for our youth to learn or prepare for future careers.

The closest thing to a vaccine for the educational crisis is the Biden Administration’s expansion of internet access to unserved and underserved communities with the new $100 billion broadband infrastructure plan. The proposal calls for bringing “affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband” to EVERY American, including the more than 40 percent of rural Americans who lack high-speed access, where the Latinx community is growing.

For minority and rural communities, closing the digital divide is one of the most pressing educational and future of work issues before Congress.

According to estimates by Bellwether Education Partners, up to 3 million students in the U.S. possibly have not attended zoom school since the pandemic and predict that between 10 and 25 percent of students in the most marginalized populations have completely missed out on learning for the past year, many because of a lack of adequate high-speed, internet service, making it more difficult to learn.

The Hispanic Heritage Foundation did a national study which found that Latinx students were most likely to say their grades suffered because of a lack of access to broadband. These students were also most likely to say they could not finish their homework because of a lack of access to wi-fi, and they were most likely to use a smartphone to complete homework or fill out a college application. One of the findings was that teachers said Latinx parents were most difficult to communicate with because of the parents’ lack of access to the internet for email communication. It was NOT a language barrier. It was an internet barrier.

Yes, teachers also seek better wi-fi and access to computers to be able to teach. According to a RAND Corporation survey of teachers, 75 percent find “students’ lack of access to technological tools and students’ lack of access to high-speed internet” are serious obstacles to effective implementation of learning.

Against this backdrop, it is good to see the Biden Administration and Congress focus on solving an educational equity issue of our time. It is critical policymakers from both parties remember that:

Closing the Digital Divide is about access AND affordability . In February, the Federal Communications Commission unanimously approved a $3.2 billion emergency benefits program for needy households. The program provides monthly discounts of up to $50 towards broadband service for eligible households and up to $75 per month for households on Tribal lands. Eligible households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 for a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet. This is a great step forward for struggling families and the program should serve as a model for making broadband both accessible and affordable.

Any Federal effort to close the Digital Divide should include this kind of direct support for high-speed broadband among low-income families. But we will need more sustainable funding mechanisms to preserve this program and its benefits.

Any effort to close the Digital Divide must support wireless broadband expansion . The median age of U.S. Latinos is 30, substantially lower than other groups, and more than 30 % of our community is under 18 years of age. Since younger populations tend to prefer mobile technologies and move around more, it is not surprising that Latinos depend on wireless more than other groups. This is a key reason why wireless broadband should be an important part of any program to close the digital divide.

Wireless broadband is especially important across rural communities, which have experienced especially fast Latino population growth during the last decade. Our national interest and certainly the Latino community’s interest is for Congress to support all broadband solutions – wired and wireless – that meet a typical family’s needs.

Remember what this issue is really about . For many, the Tech-Edquity Gap hit home with the photo of two girls sitting on a sidewalk using a fast-food restaurant’s Wi-Fi. For me, this issue is about a young man in Dallas I mentor named Adan Gonzalez, who is the son of Mexican immigrants with no fixed broadband at home. Adan would lean on a restaurant’s wall outside on his phone to fill out his college applications. That flash access to Wi-Fi allowed him the opportunity – and all we want is opportunity – to receive a scholarship to Georgetown University and a graduate school for education at Harvard University and then to Columbia University’s prestigious Teaching School. He was the first in his family to graduate from middle school, high school or college.

Today, Adan runs his own educational and leadership academy called Puede in his old neighborhood Oak Cliff in Dallas. The first thing he did when he set up the Puede Academy was focus on getting internet access because most of the 500 students who will participate will not have broadband at home. Their ability, like Adan’s, to build a better future will be dependent on reliable internet access.

America needs more stories like Adan’s, but we need productive broadband to overcome the educational crisis and move forward as a more educated, prepared for the workforce and innovative country.

( Antonio Tijerino is an education, workforce, social impact, and cultural activist and heads up the Hispanic Heritage Foundation.)