Progress on La Brecha Digital? Finalmente?

Student in MANA Hermanitas Program doing homework

Hispanic Heritage Month is a time of reflection. The gift of hindsight allows us to look back on all of the progress that has been made for the Hispanic community, yet for advocates, it also means we must bring into focus all that remains to be done. This year, the specter of COVID-19 looms large over our community. A recent headline from Pew Research says it all: “Coronavirus Economic Downturn Has Hit Latinos Especially Hard.” Unfortunately, all the data supports this: Latino unemployment tripled between February and June. Among Hispanic women, unemployment this summer was more than 20%.

And we have all seen infamous examples of our students sitting in fast food parking lots to access the internet to do their school work. But we did not need those visceral reminders to know that “la brecha digital” for Latinos remains a huge problem. Drawing on Federal figures, a Deutsche Bank analysis says Hispanic families are a decade behind on home broadband access adoption.

So as Hispanic Heritage Month draws to a close, how do we keep from feeling this continual disappointment bordering on heartbreak? As Edward James Olmos playing math teacher Jaime Escalante told his students in the great movie Stand and Deliver, “You only see the turn, you don’t see the road ahead.”

We may be down in this moment, but as a community that knows adversity, we are never out of the fight. With hard work and determination, we can always find hope. And there are signs that the opportunities for action are improving. First, Americans now overwhelmingly support Federal action to close the digital divide. The COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide examples of students without proper Internet access have made this a front-burner issue. Corporations are also speaking out on broadband support. AT&T’s CEO recently called for Congressional action because “market forces and private companies can’t do it alone.”

The sheer magnitude of this problem — and how it affects all communities nationwide — means this support is more likely to create action. Congress is looking at earmarking up to $80 billion for rural broadband as lawmakers are forced to confront so many children and families who are no closer to being connected.

As I said during a panel discussion this month at the AT&T Forum in Washington, DC, Congress should approve an emergency broadband benefit that would go immediately to students and families in need. This would accelerate the support needed for many students lacking broadband, such as those in affordable housing.

Another reason for long-term optimism involves healthcare. Online telehealth programs have surged this year in response to COVID. This spring, Americans had more than 34 million online sessions with healthcare providers in a month. Since then, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) provided funding for more than 530 new telehealth projects nationwide. With millions of Latinos lacking access to affordable healthcare, these new projects offer the prospect of real long-term improvements in healthcare.

Finally, while economic challenges are huge, as Pew reported last month, Latinos should remember that the entrepreneurial spirit runs deep within us. Prior to the pandemic, our community started businesses at a higher rate than any other demographic. Latina-owned businesses accounted for nearly a third of new women-owned businesses between 2018 and 2019.

Businesses need broadband to success and the continued growth of 5G wireless will be a huge new benefit for connecting communities. 5G has tremendous potential benefit for people living in rural communities, where Latino population growth is huge.

As the economy continues opening, Latinos will again show their entrepreneurial spirit. Our community has been on the front lines during the closures, and we will lead the way on the success of our economy moving forward. The next time we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month together, hopefully we can look back and see how our hard work and determination helped close La Brecha Digital — finalmente.

President and CEO of MANA, A National Latina Organization