Dallas should stay focused on broadband affordability

By HARRISON BLAIR

Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce

 

Over the past couple years, leaders at all levels of government have sought to get more Americans online. President Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure law and American Rescue Plan Act allocate significant funding to achieve this goal. Here, the Dallas City Council has shown attentiveness to the need for digital equity through its ongoing formulation of a Broadband Strategic Plan to get Dallas’s 120,000 unconnected residents online.

Given the current digital landscape of Dallas, as well as some of the other issues in our community that need addressing, it’s worth highlighting the solutions being considered that do and do not make sense.

First, Dallas should be focused on adoption-related solutions, like eliminating the cost barrier of a broadband subscription for low-income residents or equipping digitally challenged residents with the skills they need to navigate the internet. Dallas’s digital landscape doesn’t warrant investment in broadband infrastructure because that is not a problem in our city. The FCC estimates that over 99.9% of Dallas has access to three or more broadband providers.

Not only would an investment in municipal broadband infrastructure do nothing to address the core problems, in Dallas, but it would also be incredibly costly and divert significant financial resources away from other pressing issues. The city’s Broadband Strategic Plan emphasizes this, claiming that a city-wide, municipal broadband network would “exceed $1.5 billion in capital costs and would, as a result of putting extensive resources into neighborhoods that are already served with broadband, not address equity issues most efficiently.”

The huge price tag for a solution that hasn’t worked in other cities is hard to justify you consider more pressing needs in Dallas, like affordable housing. The city’s Housing and Neighborhood Revitalization director recently expressed the urgent need for affordable housing funding as “developers and homebuilders who want to build affordable housing don’t get adequate resources and city assistance to help them take on projects.”

But making sure we are allocating money to our most immediate needs doesn’t mean that we can’t bridge the digital divide quickly and effectively. In fact, recently passed federal laws provide multiple, fully funded tools that more directly address broadband adoption needs in Dallas.

For example, the Affordable Connectivity Program is a key tool that we must amplify and use to eliminate the ways in which a low level of income can prevent unconnected residents from affording an internet subscription. This new program, which over 620,000 Dallas residents are estimated to be eligible for, provides a $30 monthly voucher for eligible households to use on an internet subscription. When combined with the low-income offerings available from many providers in Dallas, it makes the cost of a subscription free or close to it.

The only problem facing the program is that not enough people know it exists, which is why in August, the FCC announced a $100 million grant program that will assist local governments with their efforts to amplify the program and increase enrollment. Dallas should make a diligent effort to secure this grant funding given the profoundly positive impact that the ACP could have on eliminating the digital divide. Dallas can also invest smaller, more targeted funding toward identifying who is impacted by the digital literacy component of our divide and establish digital literacy programs to help educate them on the skills they need.

Like any big city, Dallas has a lot of areas that need investment, but the good news is that we have the solutions we need to level the digital playing field and most of them are already federally funded. I’m hopeful that our local leaders understand these dynamics and will use these federally funded tools, while preserving City funds for critical issues like affordable housing.

 

Harrison Blair is the president of the Dallas Black Chamber of Commerce.

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