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Saturday, March 02, 2024 — Houston, TX

Bridging the digital divide

By Abhi Jain , Carolyn Suradejvibul and Jiya Bhatia     1/9/24 11:06pm

Editor’s Note: This is a guest opinion that has been submitted by a member of the Rice community. The views expressed in this opinion are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of the Thresher or its editorial board. All guest opinions are fact-checked to the best of our ability and edited for clarity and conciseness by Thresher editors.

Access to the internet plays a central role in almost everyone’s lives, especially as we enter an increasingly digitized world. Unfortunately, however, 170,000 households in Houston lack access to the internet. While many of these individuals are adults, a significant portion comprises students of college age. 

Can you imagine not being able to access Google or Canvas at your every whim? At Rice, we’re incredibly privileged to have internet access provided to us. Admittedly, we often take it for granted, with groans echoing across campus when the “Rice Owls” Wi-Fi goes down for mere minutes. It’s almost incomprehensible to imagine a world without access to Wi-Fi. This is the jarring reality that hundreds of thousands of Houstonians, and over two million Texans, face every day. So, what strides are being made to increase internet access, both across the country and in Texas?

One program of relevance is the Affordable Connectivity Program, a federal initiative that provides internet access to qualifying households through a subsidy of $30 per month (and $75 per month for people living on tribal lands) with participating internet providers. As of late 2023, the FCC has registered approximately 16.6 million people; however, nearly 35 million eligible households have yet to sign up. 

Unfortunately, the program is at risk of ending in April, putting millions at risk of losing internet access. This poses the question: What can we do to make a difference? 

First, we can raise awareness about the ACP to friends and family, who may qualify through federal benefits like SNAP, Medicaid or the Pell Grant. Alternatively, you can consider contacting members of Congress. Currently, the White House is urging Congress to extend funding for the ACP, but discussion has stalled. Efforts to expand broadband access have been bipartisan as President Joe Biden, a Democrat, helped engineer the ACP, and Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, created the Texas Broadband Infrastructure Fund, putting $1.5 billion toward broadband expansion efforts. If we hope to ensure that the ACP remains funded, we must urge our senators and representatives to push their support behind this initiative. 

This is especially relevant in Texas, where 1.7 million Texans just lost access to Medicaid. Since April 2023, states have been reevaluating Medicaid recipients’ eligibility for the program, following a three-year pause on eligibility checks due to COVID-19. Texas’s Medicaid eligibility requirements are extremely stringent, and because Medicaid is one of the main ways that individuals qualify for the ACP, many households are simultaneously losing access to healthcare and the internet.

Hence, it’s vital that we show lawmakers the large impact the ACP has on the community. Students can advocate for continued ACP funding on social media to rally their peers into demonstrating widespread public support. 

Many organizations are also working to connect individuals to the internet, including EducationSuperHighway and OnlineForAll. One organization, Link Health, is a nonprofit initiative spearheaded by students from Rice, Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Houston, who have witnessed firsthand the impact that internet access has on Houstonians. Today, those without the internet find themselves cut off from friends, family and community. Conversations with diverse patients have revealed stories of missed family milestones and frustration toward the inability to stay connected during challenging times. Without this digital bridge, we lose sight of our connectivity, exacerbating mental health challenges and divisions within society.

In addition to impacting mental health, internet access can also dictate physical health. Since COVID-19, telehealth has become a much more accessible means of delivering healthcare; as Rice students, we are lucky to have the Texas Medical Center right at our doorstep, but for many, the nearest clinics or hospitals are over an hour away. Unfortunately, however, telehealth is inaccessible for communities that lack internet access. 

Hence, by promoting awareness of the ACP, broadening the reach of organizations like Link Health and furthering efforts to bridge the digital divide, we can impact the lives of thousands of Houstonians. This would not only supply internet access, but also improve our collective mental and physical health. We encourage Rice students to contribute toward combating the digital divide by actively advocating for continued ACP funding and spreading awareness of the resources available to improve internet access across the country.

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