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Lowery: Arizona has opportunity to expand broadband internet everywhere


Arizona is home to the country’s most unserved and underserved community, according to Mike Conlow, director of network strategy at Cloudflare. The worst region, Cochise County, and other rural communities, like Sierra Vista and Greenlee, as well as Tribal lands, continue to be plagued by poor internet quality and limited access to low-priced broadband.

The widespread adoption of home internet in Arizona has been problematic. In Maricopa County, 93% of households have access to an internet service provider, but only 65% purchase an internet service subscription. That means more than 207,000 households in the state’s largest county do not have home internet, according to Connect Arizona.

Common Sense Media research estimates more than 335,500 Arizona students lack access to high-speed internet, and 220,500 are without devices. These are the Arizona students that FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has described as struggling with the “homework gap.” Without support, they lack consistent access to the connectivity and devices they need to participate fully in education.

These are big problems for Arizona. The internet is vital for families and Arizona's economy. When students are unconnected, there is an estimated annual loss of $33 billion to the national GDP. 

Thankfully, Arizona has a historic opportunity to correct these problems. Through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Arizona now has access to federal funding to support broadband infrastructure build-out, digital literacy programs, and, for the first time, an affordability program for high-speed home internet access.

These federal investments will help to ensure that everyone, regardless of age, occupation, or income, has access to the benefits of broadband access. The IIJA has created programs like the Affordable Connectivity Program, which helps vulnerable households get connected by providing $30 per month toward internet service and up to $75 per month for households on qualifying Tribal lands. Currently, more than 20 million households are enrolled in the program, including over 450,000 in Arizona. That's over one in six Arizona households.

Lia Larson is one of them.

The Phoenix mother of four began homeschooling her children after they had difficulty readjusting to the classroom after the COVID-19 pandemic. Until recently, Lia's teaching ability was limited by her home’s slow internet connection (a phone hotspot) and a single tablet split among her kids.

Keeping Lia and her family connected is one of the reasons Common Sense is partnering with the city of Phoenix and the Digital Equity Institute to ensure vulnerable families can afford and safely use the internet.

It is important to note that two factors are at play: First, there is a lack of affordable internet service offerings, which the ACP helps to address. Second, there is a lack of internet infrastructure ready to support essential activities for education, health care, and work. The lack of infrastructure is addressed by a different program — BEAD (Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment). BEAD provides funding to support internet service providers building networks in unserved and underserved communities. In the same way the ACP helps households afford internet service, BEAD helps ISPs afford to build internet networks in rural communities where the cost to build is very high.

What's even better is that BEAD and the ACP work together.  Common Sense Media’s analysis found that the existence of the  ACP reduces by 25% the per-household subsidy needed to incentivize providers to build in rural areas. As the state begins to close the gaps in broadband infrastructure in cities and towns throughout Arizona, newly connected communities will need a benefit like the ACP to make the most of the state’s investments in broadband deployment.

This is a big moment for Arizona. Our business, education, and health care sectors are watching because this significant investment in our tech infrastructure is critical to helping families thrive and for a robust economic future.

You can — and should — get involved in this historic opportunity to close the digital divide in our state. First, participate in the planning process for the state's digital equity plan to ensure every community has the support needed to succeed online. Second, contact your congressional delegation to let them know they cannot let the ACP run out of funding. Arizona's families and children and families rely on the ACP to stay connected to education, healthcare, and jobs.

Ilana Lowery is the Arizona director of Common Sense Media, one of America's leading advocacy organizations focused on the well-being of children and families.