Addressing racial and digital inequity

Eight city skylines

Our world is becoming more digital every day. The pandemic has forced so many essential activities online: going to school, earning an income and staying in touch with friends and family all require a reliable broadband internet connection. But millions of Americans don’t have access to broadband –  either because it’s not available or they can’t afford it – and are cut off from what has become essential to everyday life during the pandemic. This problem is particularly acute in Black, African American, Latinx and Hispanic communities in cities where broadband infrastructure largely exists, but the connection and devices to utilize it are unaffordable, leaving access to essentials of life out of reach for millions. This is a problem we can and must fix.

In 2017, we launched the Microsoft Airband Initiative to expand broadband access in rural America. Today, we are expanding Airband to U.S. cities that face some of the largest broadband gaps among racial and ethnic minorities, specifically Black and African American communities. Our approach focuses on providing access to affordable broadband, devices and digital skilling tools and resources in eight cities, including aiding in the digital transformation of the institutions that support these communities. Our initial work will extend access to communities in Atlanta, Cleveland, Detroit, El Paso, Los Angeles, Memphis, Milwaukee and New York City.

This is part of Microsoft’s Racial Equity Initiative, announced last summer, which aims to address racial inequity and injustice for the Black and African American community in the United States.

Understanding the problem

Two years ago, we released a study showing the FCC was drastically underestimating the number of people without access to broadband. But, today, the digital divide is still a chasm. We’re releasing an update to the original study showing that 120.4 million people in the U.S. do not use the internet at broadband speeds – more than a third of the nation’s population and dramatically more than the 14.5 million people the FCC claims don’t have access to broadband. While rural areas continue to show the worst connectivity – like Apache County, Arizona, where only 7% use the internet at broadband speeds – even urban areas show massive digital gaps, like New York City, where only 55% of people use the internet at broadband speeds.

The digital divide is everywhere – rural and urban areas, with the problem being compounded by the pandemic – but the federal government has been relying on faulty, inaccurate maps to target broadband infrastructure dollars, leaving millions without the connectivity they need to participate in the digital economy. As we’ve said before, we can’t solve a problem we don’t understand. Luckily, thanks to Congressional action late last year, the FCC is now able to update its mapping process. We hope the FCC moves with all due haste to build the new maps so infrastructure dollars can be targeted to the communities where help is needed most.

The digital divide

The digital divide has always disproportionately impacted Black, African American, Latinx and Hispanic people, and the global pandemic has made the situation much worse. Black and African American families are less likely to have adequate internet access at home, and therefore too many children struggled to go to school online as campuses were closed to devastating effect. This is an issue of affordability: the cost of service is a chief reason people with access to broadband don’t actually sign up, according to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. Furthermore, for things like school and work, a broadband connection is only helpful if people have devices like laptops or desktop computers to use it. While many people have smartphones, it’s nearly impossible to run a modern business, virtually meet with your doctor or go to school online on a six-inch screen, meaning the “device gap” cuts off the nearly 17% of Black and African American people who are dependent on smartphones to access the internet. To fully realize the potential of affordable broadband and devices, people will also need to learn new digital skills. As a result of their lower rates of broadband and device usage, Black and African American people have fewer opportunities to develop the digital fluency and skills needed to participate in the digital economy. We can change this.

Like millions across the country, this is an issue that impacts my own family. I grew up in Milwaukee, where many of my family members don’t have in-home broadband, and those that do are struggling to keep their service due to cost, while also lacking the computing devices and digital skills necessary to use broadband in a meaningful way. My brother, who hopes to someday start his own business, recently got a broadband connection, but he doesn’t have a laptop or desktop and still relies on his smartphone to access the internet, making it difficult to create a business plan, apply for a small business loan or do the hundreds of other things that are part of starting a business. We’re working with partners across the country to ensure my brother and Black and African American people like him have access to affordable broadband and devices. Everyone deserves the opportunity to start a business, advance their kids’ education and learn new digital skills for better-paying jobs.

Our work

We are already investing in projects that improve access to affordable broadband and devices for racial and ethnic minorities, especially Black and African American communities, including those families experiencing income insecurity. Here’s how we’re approaching making broadband and computers more affordable, as well as increasing digital fluency and skilling.

To expand access and adoption of affordable in-home broadband, we’re working with partners to bring new affordable offerings to market, in some cases building brand-new broadband infrastructure, and helping Black, African Americans, Latinx and Hispanic people find and sign up for existing affordable broadband services. Since every community is unique, we’re working with our partners and local leaders to ensure we use the right mix of technology to serve the most people possible.

In Los Angeles, we’re partnering with Starry, an internet service provider (ISP) that makes low-cost broadband service available to public and affordable housing communities through their digital equity program, Starry Connect. Together, we’re setting up new connections to provide affordable broadband in four Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) communities in Watts and Central-Alameda. Since the pilot launched last fall, we have connected more than 1,000 households, enabling children to access online classes and those impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic to get help with health care, finances and more. We are also working in Detroit to launch Starry’s affordable and competitive broadband network coverage for the entire city, with a specific focus on expanding access to their low-cost service to underserved and income-insecure zip codes. Our goal is to connect tens of thousands of households across the Detroit metro area.

In Cleveland, we’re leveraging a public-private partnership that brings together the state and local governments with local companies like the Eaton Corporation and GE Lighting, a Savant Company, as well as local entities like University Hospital, Metro Hospital, and East Cleveland schools. With our partner PCs for People, we launched a pilot in April in East Cleveland that will provide 1,000 households affordable, high-speed internet and affordable devices. Rather than using traditional fiber to connect individual homes, PCs for People is mounting antennas on buildings at University Hospitals and East Cleveland City Schools, which will broadcast broadband signals to individual homes. We’re also building a similar project in Cleveland as a whole with our partner DigitalC, a nonprofit that is building a hybrid network to reach thousands in unconnected and underconnected neighborhoods.

One other project is particularly close to my heart: We’re working with PCs for People in my hometown of Milwaukee, where we will use fixed wireless technology to bring affordable broadband access to approximately 1,700 residents of the Lindsay Heights neighborhood – just down the road from where I grew up, off Fond du Lac Avenue. Once a stop for the underground railroad and a thriving center for African Americans, this community has suffered due to poverty and economic instability, but investments in digital equity can help.

In some communities, affordable broadband options may already exist, but too often people may not know about them. Worse, signing up can be a complicated, onerous process. That’s why we’re working with EveryoneOn, a nonprofit that connects people to low-cost home internet service. Their bilingual offer locator tool will help people in each of the eight cities find low-cost broadband services and then guide them through the sign-up process, find affordable computers and begin digital literacy training that can help them get better-paying jobs in the digital economy. Once someone signs up through EveryoneOn, they will be offered three months of free broadband service.

A broadband connection isn’t much help by itself – that’s why we are focused on developing affordable computing device offerings. In many of these cities, we’re providing free or low-cost refurbished devices, working with partners like PCs for People, human-I-T, a nonprofit that repairs donated laptops and desktops and sells them at deeply discounted prices, and PlanITROI, a company whose Digital Dreams Project provides refurbished devices to K-12 students in need. We have also created a financing program for Starry’s low-cost broadband customers, designed for people who have low credit scores or no credit history and therefore would otherwise be ineligible for financing, enabling customers to purchase a Microsoft Surface Go 2 and Office for Home and Student for $22 per month. We’ve launched this program in Los Angeles and New York City and will be rolling it out in the remaining six cities over the coming months.

Once people in these communities have access to an affordable broadband connection and the devices to use it, we’re working with our partners to provide free digital skills training for the most in-demand roles so people can improve their employment opportunities in the digital economy. Communities in our eight cities will be able to take advantage of Microsoft’s Global Skills Initiative, which seeks to bring digital skills to millions of people around the world. After someone signs up for affordable broadband and purchases or receives a device, our partners will connect them to our skills training platform, where they can discover new career paths, learn relevant skills, find jobs that are in-demand and stand out to recruiters. Our skills initiative curriculum will be used by our partners in workshops to help advance Black, African American, Latinx and Hispanic people, providing digital skills training, including topics like creating files and digital collaboration, creating an email account and navigating the internet, building a resume and job searching. To accelerate our efforts, we also aim to strengthen the network of nonprofits these communities already know and trust. We’re working with our partner EveryoneOn to train nonprofits already working in these communities to provide digital skills education. They’ll hold workshops and programs in digital inclusion, including how to start internet enrollment drives, digital skills workshops and more.

Building the policies to close the broadband gap

While these pilots will certainly help communities across the country, we’re under no illusion that they alone will be able to close the digital divide. We need systemic change to solve a systemic problem and that requires the federal and state governments to act to permanently address the digital divide. That’s why we’re using our voice and resources to push for policy change and funding at the federal, state and local levels. Only by working with stakeholders at all levels –  federal, state and local agencies; corporate, philanthropic and nonprofit partners; and community leaders –  will we be able to close the digital divide.

To advance digital equity, we believe any legislation or funding must:

  • Target market need: Broadband funding mechanisms must be designed to target and address a known market need. For example, the need to eliminate broadband deserts or connect students without broadband access for remote learning. Funding should be prioritized to reach unserved or underserved communities. This will require comprehensive and accurate broadband availability data and mapping, as we cannot solve a problem we do not understand.
  • Encourage cost-effective and technology-neutral approaches: Funding should be allocated cost-effectively to technologies and deployments that provide the maximum value through efficient use of funds. There is no-one-size-fits-all solution to network deployments and therefore encourage a technology-neutral approach where a mix of technologies – for example, fiber, satellite and a variety of fixed wireless solutions – can be leveraged to deliver broadband speeds.
  • Design for long-term benefit: Broadband funding should provide a long-term meaningful benefit to make in-home broadband service affordable for income insecure households. Networks should be required to meet, at a minimum, an updated FCC-defined broadband standard, and have a roadmap to meet evolving standards.
  • Deploy rapidly: Given the urgency of the issue, preference should be given to solutions that provide rapid deployment of broadband networks and services. History has taught us that technologies are deployed at different speeds, with wireless technologies like mobile phones seeing faster deployment than wireline technologies such as electricity. We cannot settle for slow progress: speed of deployment must be a part of the policy calculation.

Our hope

As we’ve done throughout the Airband Initiative, we will continue to share updates and learnings along the way. We know this problem is too big for any one organization to solve alone, so we hope sharing some of the lessons we learn can help others – nonprofits, other companies and all levels of government – as they tackle the digital divide.

While Covid-19 created a national crisis, it also laid bare the devastating impacts the digital divide has on Black, African American, Latinx and Hispanic communities. But it also created momentum: People are more aware of the problem and – we hope – are willing to move quickly to fix it. We’ve seen both sides of the political aisle signal that broadband is a priority, and the Biden Administration has included broadband funding in its infrastructure package. That’s a good sign, but we need to ensure the government follows through.

We’re already seeing what happens when the federal government takes decisive action: The FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) Program enrolled more than 1 million households within one week of the program’s debut – confirming the tremendous demand for federally supported programs that drive down the cost of broadband subscriptions and computing devices. But what will happen to these newly connected customers when the “emergency” period ends and funding dries up?

During the midst of the Great Depression, as tens of thousands of poor rural families were losing their homes to the Dust Bowl, the country found the political will to pass the Rural Electrification Act and transformed rural America. But imagine if policymakers had failed: Millions of rural Americans would have been left behind, perhaps permanently. Now at what is hopefully the waning days of another national emergency – this time a pandemic – we have a similar opportunity. If we squander this opportunity, we might never get another chance to close the broadband gap once and for all. The stakes are that high.

As we embark on the third decade of the 21st century, every American deserves the opportunity to access – and afford – broadband and the opportunities of the digital world beyond.

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