On July 6, 2020, Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-AZ) introduced H.R.7494, the Broadband Adoption and Opportunity Act (BAOA) which proposes the creation of a pilot program to refurbish and distribute internet-capable devices to those in need. The bill also provides for training and end-user support to ensure recipients are able to take full advantage of the opportunities provided to them by these devices.
BAOA is an important step in the fight to close the digital divide. By reducing barriers (like cost and availability) we increase access to technology and the internet which is important to the well-being of all communities, and makes it easier for low-income, disadvantaged, and overlooked individuals (like the LGBTQ community) to get online.
For those of us with consistent and reliable access to the internet, and an internet-capable device (or two or three), it can be difficult to see what someone without this access is missing. Imagine going a day without checking email or social media, or calling a family member to check in. Looking for a new job? Check online databases and upload your resume (created previously in Microsoft Word, no doubt) with just one click. These days, imagine not being able to work from home or order takeout from your favorite restaurant. From frivolous to critical, the internet and internet-capable devices afford us a sense of normalcy during these uncertain times and help us relax and unwind in the best of times.
In addition, and more crucial to the fight to close the digital divide, is the struggle of students without internet access or a computer at home completing online assignments or research. They may spend long hours at the school library, sit outside fast food restaurants to use their WiFi, or simply be unable to complete their assignments. One PowerOn participant who received a WiFi hotspot said, “Internet is too expensive, my parents just can’t afford it. I try to get all my homework done at school since most of it is online. Having a Wi-Fi hotspot means I can do my homework at home, and it will benefit my whole family to have internet access.” This is what FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has coined the “homework gap,” when students are unable to complete their work at home due to lack of internet or computer access. With online schooling appearing to be the new norm, it’s apparent that all students, regardless of where they live or how much money their family has, must have access to internet and a computer to stay on par with their classmates. BAOA will help ensure that many more families are connected as we move into this next phase of online schooling.
PowerOn and its parent organization, LGBT Technology Institute, have long advocated for the expansion of broadband access with the understanding that internet and hardware go hand-in-hand. What good is access if you don’t have a device that can get online? PowerOn grants internet-capable devices to in-need LGBTQ+ organizations and their clients so they can access online resources. Many of the individuals PowerOn serves are not able to acquire their own devices due to financial constraints or lack of family support. PowerOn’s grantees have been able to make significant progress towards their personal and professional goals with the access afforded to them through technology. Many PowerOn participants find housing or apply for jobs. Others reach out to family and friends. Some apply for school or complete their schoolwork, especially those who do not have internet access at home or even a safe and welcoming home environment in which to do their work. When the COVID-19 pandemic began to change our way of life, teachers, students, and families found themselves scrambling to adjust to online learning.
BAOA is a direct parallel to one of PowerOn’s main objectives: providing individuals with the tools they need to take advantage of the opportunities available to them online. The economic barriers to having reliable online access are enormous and cannot be overcome without assistance. A reduced cost or free internet-capable devices is a huge step forward for those facing economic challenges. In addition, BAOA also provides for training and end-user support. This is key in ensuring recipients can take full advantage of the opportunities provided to them by these devices. When anything to do with technology adoption is approached with a “sink or swim” mentality, it is a recipe for failure. Those who are unfamiliar with navigating an internet-capable device or the internet itself need training and guidance to help them feel comfortable. This is especially true for the elderly. Many elderly LGBTQ+ individuals do not have traditional family structures in place, meaning they do not have younger relatives who can help them learn to use their new device. They will be relying more heavily on the training services provided by this bill.
Though BAOA doesn’t specifically name LGBTQ+ communities as beneficiaries of this program, LGBTQ+ individuals will certainly benefit from its reach as they fall within all age, demographic, economic, and geographic locations. When the program launches to assist nonprofit organizations with technical training we will work to ensure that local LGBTQ+ centers be included. In the meantime, PowerOn will keep doing what it has done for the past five years: providing technology to homeless, isolated, and disadvantaged LGBTQ+ communities and individuals to help them thrive.