Opportunity Miami
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Opportunity Miami

Ending Miami’s digital divide in 5 years

Comcast Internet Essentials with Amigos for Kids at Jose Marti Park in Miami. (Joy Asico/Comcast 2019/used with Creative Commons License)

This is the Jan 11, 2022 edition of the Opportunity Miami newsletter, which we send every Tuesday. Click here to subscribe to get our weekly updates in your inbox.

If we were to each list five things most important to Miami’s economic future, it’s hard to imagine many of us leaving out universal internet access.

Connection to the internet at home has become as important as electricity or running water. It’s how we bank, shop, search for jobs, get our news, receive healthcare, work remotely, take meetings, and more.

During the pandemic, its importance has been cast dramatically into sharp relief. But what’s notable is how many people still don’t have it.

Only 77 percent of households in Miami-Dade County have an internet subscription, according to U.S. Census figures. With nearly one in four homes without internet, Greater Miami was called the second least-connected city in the country in The Miami Herald last year.

But now, we have an opportunity to end this searing and persistent divide once and for all. Congress has made the largest federal investment ever to get people across the U.S. connected to the Internet. And Blair Levin, former FCC Chief of Staff, thinks internet access levels can reach 95 percent or more in the next five to seven years.

“We are at an historic juncture,” Levin said on the most recent Opportunity Miami podcast, which we released today. “Because Congress, for the first time, has decided to devote tens of billions of dollars” to connect people to the internet.

Levin is currently executive director of Gig.U: The Next Generation Network Innovation Project and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He previously held roles as chief of staff to FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, and executive director of the National Broadband Plan.

The $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, known to most of us as the Infrastructure bill, includes $65 billion to help build out the country’s internet infrastructure and make broadband more affordable for lower-income households.

But Levin has a caveat: if we don’t get it done this time, he doesn’t think Congress will ever get behind such a large investment in internet access again.

“If we don’t get it right,” he said, “it’s inconceivable to me that some [future] Congress will say…‘let’s do it again.’”

The new funding comes as efforts are already underway in Miami to close the gap. Last year The Miami Foundation and Achieve Miami launched a public-private effort to close the gap called Miami Connected. The initiative is working to bring internet connectivity and digital literacy to 100,000 families across Miami-Dade County.

By any measure, ending the digital divide has been a persistently stubborn challenge — not just in Miami, but across the country. More than two decades ago, the Clinton administration launched an initiative to close the gap. Despite different efforts, ranging from Chattanooga’s city-owned utility building its own fiber network to efforts in New York City to combine public and private resources, wide gaps remain in cities across the U.S.

But “the single biggest thing was this: COVID taught everyone… we need broadband everywhere and we need everyone on,” Levin said.

The provisions of the bipartisan legislation include requiring internet service providers to offer low-cost plans, mandating clear uniform labeling modeled after food nutrition labels to describe pricing and services, funding for digital literacy programs and rules to end “digital redlining” in which internet service providers don’t offer service in neighborhoods they think won’t be profitable.

Levin said a large portion will go through states, putting a premium on local governments to spread awareness of the program, define local priorities and make the case for funding.

“Now is the time to put together the wish list,” Levin said.

Indeed, in the days ahead, we have the opportunity to make Greater Miami among the most connected metropolitan areas in the U.S. It’s not often that a generational problem can be addressed in the next five to seven years. But that’s the opportunity now in front of us.

As always, we would love to hear from you. Email us at next@opportunity.miami or engage with us on social. If you’re just learning about us, you can visit our website or read this op-ed published in The Miami Herald.

Hope to see you soon,

Matt Haggman
Opportunity Miami
@matthaggman

Opportunity Miami is powered by the Miami-Dade Beacon Council.

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