I’ve spent my life without internet. The federal government’s new program doesn’t go far enough.
By Manuela Evans
This Op Ed was narrated to Adam Echelman as part of the Humanity in Action Alfred Landecker Democracy Fellowship.
This Wednesday, the US government will begin the largest internet subsidy in history, providing $50 a month for low-income people across the US. I am one of those people. As a Black woman, an immigrant, and a single mother in Wellesley, I’ve struggled for years in this country with housing, employment, education, and lately, the internet. While I appreciate this benefit, I don’t think it goes far enough.
The program, known as the Emergency Broadband Benefit, will offer up to $50 a month for households with a child on free or reduced-price lunch, where an adult participates in other eligible FCC programs or low-cost internet service plans like Comcast’s Internet Essentials, or where a student receives Pell grants. If you’ve experienced a substantial loss of income due to COVID-19, like I have, you can qualify on that basis too. The program also includes a $100 discount towards the purchase of a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet, as long as the customer pays between $10 and $50 dollars themselves.
I’m 50 years old; my daughter is 21. I immigrated from Portugal to the Boston area in 2000, where I worked at Dunkin’ Donuts and later, with Alaska Airlines. I started studying at Mass Bay Community College in 2014, but I didn’t even have a working computer back then, not to mention the internet.
I’ve always known that the internet is a necessity, but for a long time, I simply couldn’t afford it.
When I needed to do something for school, I would connect to the spotty signal from a salon near my home in Wellesley.
When I tried to get the low-cost plan from Comcast, known as Internet Essentials, they couldn’t even get me connected because the previous tenant didn’t pay his internet bill and was still listed on my address.
We got an internet connection at home for the first time in August of 2020 with the help of an organization called Commonwealth Corps that started sending me $50 checks once a month, just like the Emergency Broadband Benefit soon will. But I still struggle. Sometimes when the check from the Commonwealth Corps comes, I don’t have the money to eat, so I buy food instead. And then my boss says, “I didn’t see you online.”
The Emergency Broadband Benefit goes directly to the internet companies, not to individuals, so unlike the Commonwealth Corps stipend I receive, I can’t repurpose the new checks if something more pressing comes up. $50 isn’t enough either. Some of the internet plans around Boston, like mine, cost more than $50 per month, and those extra dollars are more than I can afford sometimes.
It’s not just having the internet, either. To really survive and ultimately succeed in this country, you also need a computer. For years, I relied on the computers at Mass Bay Community College or at the Wellesley Public Library. People like me also need longer hours at the library and support when our computers inevitably break. While the Emergency Broadband Benefit is supposed to provide a discount for computers, many of the participating companies have decided not to sell those discounted devices. What happens then?
Today, thanks to the non-profit organization, One Family, I finally have a functioning computer, but now there’s another hurdle I must overcome: learning how to use it. While I knew how to navigate a Facebook page when I started college, I had no idea how to upload a document to google classroom, and I was clueless when my professors would talk about “Word,” “browsers,” or “Google Drive.” As a non-native English speaker, the language barrier made it especially hard to understand how to use computers. Immigrants like me need training that is in our native languages, sometimes just to learn the basics of the internet.
To be inclusive, Boston should look to efforts like the Detroit Equitable Internet Initiative, which trains residents to build, maintain, and understand their own internet infrastructure without putting more money into the hands of big companies. They focus specifically on communities of color who have been most affected by the digital divide.
Massachusetts should also survey residents to get real information about the state of the digital divide. Even the Acting Chairwoman of the FCC Jessica Rosenworcel admits that the federal government’s maps are unreliable.
It isn’t just about technology or even the internet. It’s about poverty. The digital divide has been a problem in the same way that there has been discrimination with housing or employment. Kids who were struggling before the covid pandemic only became visible to the world because they were forced to do their homework at the parking lot of Mac Donald’s, and the entire world saw the truth. Now that more people can see it, it’s time Massachusetts acted.