Now is the time to close the Latino digital divide

In our country, we no longer light our homes with candles, nor do we draw water from common wells. But while electricity and access to clean drinking water are commonplace in the United States, another basic human right — the ability to fully participate in modern life via affordable, reliable, high-speed internet service — remains out of reach for many.

A Pew Research study from 2021 found that around 34% of lower-income households in America have trouble paying for home broadband service amid COVID-19. A BroadbandNow report from 2022 estimates that at least 42 million Americans lack access to broadband at all.

For more than 650,000 Illinois families, affordability is a key deterrent to accessing sufficient internet service. And more than 1.1 million Illinoisans lack at-home computing devices, including more than 20% of households with children under 18.

We’re seeing historic investment on the federal level to address the digital divide, but those funds can be slow to reach communities that need them.

The Biden administration recently announced it had reached agreements with 20 leading internet providers, covering more than 80% of Americans, to provide households eligible for the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) high-speed internet plans for no more than $30 a month.

This will be a game-changer for many families. We strongly encourage more providers to join the initial 20 that are offering a plan for $30 a month.

We are grateful that strengthening the program is a top priority at the highest levels of our government. But we worry: Are the majority of local policymakers — mayors, council people and others with direct contact to their communities — even aware of what ACP stands for, let alone how they can help their communities utilize it?

Are those that can receive the benefit getting what they need to enroll?

This is an especially urgent matter for the Latino community, which is disproportionately affected by the digital divide. Another 2021 Pew Research study found that only 67% of Hispanic adults reported owning a computer and only 65% said they have internet service at home, compared to 80% of white adults who reported both.

To make an important government program like ACP successful, trusted community partners must work together with state and local governments to raise awareness, guide local leaders and drive engagement.

In November 2021, Heartland Forward formed a partnership with the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) to increase participation in the ACP in the Latino community, by working from the ground up. To date, LULAC and Heartland Forward have successfully piloted high-touch, person-to-person community outreach events in churches, schools and local libraries with 13 local LULAC councils in four states.

In Illinois, we have trained and supported several local LULAC councils that have already reached more than 4,500 people with information about the ACP. Imagine what this means for those enrolled: Seniors with limited mobility can now connect with their doctors via telehealth appointments, students can access the resources they need to succeed in school, and scores of job-seekers can fill out applications or apply for government assistance more seamlessly than before.

This kind of investment is essential to increasing enrollment in ACP. After all, there are still significant challenges to overcome. Very few people have heard of ACP, and it’s become clear over the last year that the program is being largely underutilized.

The Benton Institute estimates that 36 million households were eligible for the predecessor to ACP, while federal tallies show that just over 12 million households were enrolled in the ACP as of the week of May 30, 2022.

There’s insight into why the program is struggling to attract enrollees. To some, free or discounted high-speed internet may seem too good to be true. For others, hesitation about providing personal information to the government may dissuade them from applying even if they qualify. And language barriers, exacerbated by a streamlined but still involved application process, could hold families back.

Heartland Forward and LULAC know high-speed internet access is essential to create real economic opportunity and equity for the Latino community. From job opportunities to feeding our families, high-speed internet access is a prerequisite for participation in modern life.

We hope other community leaders and nonprofit organizations will join us in collaborating to grow the success of the ACP program and that more providers decide to participate — so we can make progress toward closing the digital divide in the heartland and across the country.

Sindy M. Benavides is the CEO of the League of United Latin American Citizens. Angie Cooper is the chief program officer of Heartland Forward.

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