Justice C. Shannon, MJLST Staffer
In 2015 Zaqueri “Aphromoo” Black won his first North American League of Legends championship series “LCS” championship playing support for Counter Logic Gaming. Since 2013 at least forty players have made the starting lineups for eight to ten LCS teams. Aphromoo is the only African American to win an LCS MVP. Aphromoo is the only African American player to win multiple LCS finals. Aphromoo is the only African American player to win a single LCS Final. Aphromoo is the only African American player to make it to an LCS final. Aphromoo is the only African American player to participate in LCS playoffs. Indeed, Aphromoo is the only African American player to have a starting role on an LCS team. Why? At least in part, because due to the digital divide.
More than a quarter of African Americans do not have broadband. Further, nearly 40% of the African Americans in the rural south do not have broadband. One quarter of the Latinx population does not have broadband. These discrepancies allow fewer African Americans and Latinx to play online video games like League of Legends. Okay, but if the digital divide only affects esports, why should the nation care? The digital divide, as seen in esports, is also seen in the American educational system. More than 15% of American households lacked broadband at the start of the pandemic. This gap was more pronounced in African American and Latinx households. These statistics demonstrate a national need to address the digital divide for entertainment purposes and, more importantly, educational purposes. So, what are some legal solutions to the digital divide? Municipal internet, subsidies, and low-income broadband laws.
Municipal broadband is not a new concept, but recently it has been seen as a solution to help address the digital divide. While the up-front cost to a city may be substantial, the long-term advantages can be significant. Highland, IL, and other communities across the United States provide high-speed internet for as low as $35 a month. Cities providing low-cost broadband through municipalities frequently have competitive prices for gigabit speeds as well. The most significant downside to this solution is that these cities are frequently in rural locations that do not provide for large populations. In addition, when municipalities attempt to provide broadband outside of their borders, state laws preempt them to protect ISPs. ISPs lobby for laws to deter or prevent municipal internet on the basis that they are necessary to prevent unfair competition; this fear of unfair competition, however, restricts communities from getting connected.
To avoid the preemption issue during the pandemic, some cities have established narrow versions of municipal broadband. In addition, these cities are providing free connectivity in heavily populated communities. For example, during the pandemic, Chattanooga, Tennessee, offered free broadband to low-income students. If these solutions stay in place, they will set an industry precedent for providing broadband to low-income communities.
The emergency Broadband Benefit provides up to $50 per month towards broadband services for eligible households and $75 a month for households on tribal lands. To qualify for the program, a household must meet one of five standards. Congress created the program to help low-income households stay connected during the pandemic. Congress allocated $3.2 billion to the FCC to enable the agency to provide the discount. This discount also comes with a one-time device discount of up to $100 so that users not only have broadband but have the tools to utilize broadband. The advantage of this subsidy is it directly addresses the issue of low-income recipients not being able to afford broadband, which can immediately affect the 15% of Americans who do not have broadband.
The downside of this solution is to qualify, a recipient must share their income on a webpage they have not visited before, which can be invasive. Further, this plan does not permanently address the cost of broadband, and once it ends, it is possible that the same groups of Americans who could not afford broadband before lose access to the internet. Additionally, when the average cost of a laptop in America is $700, a discount of $100 does not do very much to ensure that users are correctly benefitting from their new broadband connection. If the goal is to ensure that users can attend classes, complete homework assignments, and maybe play esports on the side, then a lower-cost tablet ($350 on average) would not address the problem of needing hardware to access broadband.
However, a program like this could be valued as a reasonable start if things continue to go in the right direction. A fair price for broadband is $60 a month. Reducing the cost of broadband to $10 per recipient for competitive speeds and reliability after subsidization could be a great tool to eliminate the digital divide so long as it persists after the pandemic.
Low-Income Broadband Laws
Low-cost broadband laws would require internet service providers to provide broadband plans for low-income recipients at a low-cost price. This approach would directly address Americans with physical access to broadband but who cannot pay for broadband solutions due to cost, thus, helping to bridge the digital divide. Low-cost broadband plans such as New York’s proposed Affordable Broadband Act would require all internet service providers serving more than 20,000 households to provide two low-cost plans to qualifying (low income) customers. However, New York’s law was stymied by ISPs arguing that it is an illegal way to close the digital divide as states are preempted from rate regulation of broadband by the Federal Communications Commission.
The ISPs argued that the Affordable Broadband Act operated within the field of interstate commerce and was thus likely preempted by the Federal Communications Act of 1934. However, as broadband is almost always interstate commerce, other state laws similar to New York’s Affordable Broadband Act would probably run into the same issue. Thus, a low-income broadband law would likely need to come from the federal level to avoid the same road bumps.
The Future of Broadband and the Digital Divide
An overlapping theme between many of these solutions is that they were implemented during the pandemic; this begs the question, are these short-term solutions to an unexpected life-changing event or rational long-term solutions for various long-term problems, including the pandemic? If cities, states, and the nation stay the course and implement more low-cost broadband solutions such as municipal internet, subsidies, and low-income broadband laws, it will be possible to address the digital divide. However, if jurisdictions treat these solutions like short-term stopgaps, communities that cannot afford traditional broadband solutions will again lose broadband access. Students will again go to McDonald’s to do homework assignments, and Aphromoo may continue to be the only active African American LCS player.