State Rep. Park Cannon: Georgia needs a digital equity plan

A year ago, Georgia’s governor called Joe Biden’s U.S. bailout a “slap in the face for hard-working Georgians.” Now our state is touting $400 million in new rural broadband projects funded by the bill.

State Representative Park Cannon represents Midtown Atlanta in the Georgia House of Representatives

Federal stimulus funding speaks to broad bipartisan support for rural broadband. It is now critical that we follow common sense principles to get the job done right: prioritize unserved communities, demand transparency, and let all providers compete fairly for funding. We can wire every corner of our state if we stay focused and refuse to waste dollars on political patronage or divert them to luxury projects in communities that already have fast networks.

But when it comes to closing Georgia’s digital divide, the rural divide is only one front in the war. We also need bipartisanship from the Governor for the biggest and toughest piece of the puzzle: helping unconnected Georgians get online in neighborhoods across our state that already have world-class broadband networks. but who are not registered.

In fact, while 90% or more of our state’s homes already have broadband, less than 70% actually subscribe at home. Broadband adoption rates are particularly low among communities of color, people with disabilities, and low-income families.

Funds are in place to achieve universal broadband – a goal shared by all supporters. The next step is to assemble a concrete plan – a bottom-up, neighborhood-focused strategy to close Georgia’s digital divide.

Let’s start with the roadmap. For years, rebate programs and public-private partnerships have made progress by recruiting the unconnected. Atlanta’s Get Our Kids Connected initiative, for example, has partnered with Comcast to provide free home internet service to unconnected students in need during the pandemic. Low-income programs offered by providers have connected at least 14 million Americans over the past decade.

The formula for the success of these programs is simple: take advantage of the world-class broadband already in place in most cities and suburbs in Georgia. Make sure low-income residents can afford to connect. And partner with local institutions — school districts, Boys and Girls Clubs, community centers — to provide training and mentorship so everyone signs up.

Now, President Biden’s infrastructure bill will provide the rocket fuel to scale this model nationwide. The bill’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) will provide low-income families with $30 per month to purchase home internet service from the provider of their choice. Combined with the discount programs most providers already offer low-income customers, the CPA means broadband service will effectively be free for millions of struggling Georgians.

It’s a monumental step forward, but it’s not a silver bullet. Years of trial and error also teach us that offering free or low-cost broadband doesn’t guarantee eligible families will sign up — or even be aware of the offer.

A recent survey in another major city found that less than 10% of school-age parents were even aware of their district’s free broadband program during the pandemic, and only 3 in 10 were aware of discount programs. ISPs.

And even after hearing about these opportunities, too many who have been left behind in the digital age are still struggling to understand how going online could fundamentally change their lives for the better. They need to hear from neighbors and friends they know and trust who can explain and evangelize the opportunities that await them online – and stand by them to help them sign up.

We would never claim that educating our children is as simple as building a school; to be effective, this school also needs strong teachers and an engaging curriculum. The same is true for digital equity: we can’t just build a network and then walk away – or claim that building a 3rd or 4th network on top of the options already in place will convince skeptics to tune in. .

Instead, we need an on-the-ground, people-centered approach that funds and empowers local community organizations to do the heavy lifting here: publicizing free and low-cost broadband programs, teach the basic digital skills needed to succeed online. , and arouse curiosity and the courage – one neighbor at a time – to take the plunge.

The billions in federal funds now flowing to Georgia give us what we need to fund this digital equity plan. Now we just need bipartisan cooperation and commitment to make it happen.

Park Cannon represents House District 58 in the Georgia House of Representatives.

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