In April of this year, Kathryn de Wit of the Pew Charitable Trusts released what I consider to be the definitive article defining the broadband gap in low-income housing. I’ve discussed her paper before, but as we finally approach the start of the BEAD grant process, I wanted to highlight the findings from her report. While BEAD grant funding is supposed to be available to bring broadband to unserved and underserved homes everywhere, I have to wonder how much funding will be provided in most states to tackle this issue – which is mostly found in cities.
I think its universally understood that homes need broadband to take part in modern life. Just in my own life, it seems that month after month and year after year, that more of the functions I do now involve broadband. Just one example, I recently had some doctor visits, and a lot of the process is now online to register prior to the visit and to get my results from lab tests. This was not part of the process for my doctor just a year ago – but seemingly everything we do is migrating online.
Pew interviews with low-income households showed that some of the most important benefits of broadband for low-income homes include reduced isolation and increased social connection, support for aging in place, access to education, health care and wellness, job training, financial services, and the opportunity to apply for and find jobs. Several major studies have documented the positive impact for students who have broadband and computers in the home.
The Pew paper describes the lack of broadband for low-income housing as being the result of several issues. First is that ISPs, in many cases, are not building fiber or other modern infrastructure to subsidized housing. When an ISP builds fiber near a low-income apartment building, it often bypass the building and don’t offer fiber. While ISPs won’t publicly say it, this is due to an expectation of low returns on the investment of building a fiber drop, wiring the units, and providing the electronics.
Another issue is a shift away from community technology centers – places where WiFi broadband and computers are made available to the public. This is a movement that was already underway before the pandemic and which became the norm during COVID shutdowns. This means there must be a bigger emphasis on getting broadband and computers into living units.
But the biggest issue continues to be affordability. Pew research from 2021 showed that 43% of households with incomes under $30,000 did not have a broadband connection – which compares to 8% for homes with incomes over $75,000 per year. 45% of people without home broadband said they can’t afford a monthly broadband subscription, and 37% said they can’t afford a computer. The household income issue is even more acute in public housing, where the average household income in a 2016 study was just over $14,000 per household.
A large survey conducted by the NTIA of homes without broadband showed that the average amount that those living in subsidized households said they could afford was just $10 per month, although over half of homes said they couldn’t afford any amount. A 2021 survey by Everyone On shows that 40% of households with incomes of $50,000 said they can’t afford broadband, while 22% said they could afford to pay as much as $25 per month.
As you might imagine, there are a lot of challenges in getting better broadband to public housing:
- Broadband subscriptions are not included in the HUD utility allowance. This is a funding mechanism that covers electricity, gas, and water fees in public housing. It’s time to recognize that a broadband subscription is a household need and not a luxury.
- While BEAD grants theoretically cover bringing broadband to apartment buildings that need it, it’s a challenge to prove the areas are underserved since urban maps often claim ubiquitous broadband coverage from cable companies. The BEAD process is also incredibly unfriendly for filing grants for small areas like a single building due to the complexity of the requirements.
- ACP funding has allowed many low-income households to get broadband. But unless Congress acts soon, that fund will run dry by next spring. The ACP rules also require individuals to apply for the subsidy. In a low-income housing building, everybody qualifies for ACP by definition, yet there is no mechanism for enrolling a building in ACP. Most other benefits for low-income housing are funded by the building instead of by individual tenants.
I’ve predicted for the last several years that the next big push for broadband connectivity will be in cities. As states start allocating rural grants for BEAD, it will likely become obvious that little has been done to help most cities. I think this is going to be a harder issue to solve than the rural broadband gaps because the big cable companies are going to fight anybody that tries to bring broadband into what they consider as their turf – even where they aren’t serving. But if the goal is to get everybody onto broadband, this is an issue we need to tackle and solve.