Broadened tech access for Blacks and Hispanics slowed by FCC

During the pandemic, Hispanics, Blacks and other people of color have made up 23 percent of job losses, with an unemployment rate double that of Whites. The urgent need to correct the deep digital divide between racial groups is emphasized in cellphone usage, far more heavily relied on by Hispanics and Blacks than Whites to find work and health information. – Photo: Quartz

by Hazel Trice Edney

TriceEdneyWire.com – African Americans and Hispanics, who depend heavily on their cellphones for access to health care information, have been hit hard by the pandemic. That’s why it’s so important that regulators stop dragging their feet on approval of a tech merger that would expand wireless access for minority and low-income consumers. 

Statistics show that African American and Hispanic communities across the nation have been on the worst end of practically every negative impact associated with the COVID-19 pandemic: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans and Latinos are still three times more likely to be infected with COVID-19 and four times more likely to die from it, while being vaccinated at only half the rate of non-minorities. 

Hispanics, Blacks and other people of color have made up 23 percent of job losses, with an unemployment rate double that of Whites. 

As African American and Hispanic children struggle to keep up educationally, COVID-19 has severely deepened the already stretched digital divide that impedes their progress. 

These racial disparities are part of the reason that Verizon’s new investment in the acquisition, expansion and growth of TracFone and its Lifeline services, which widely benefit low-income people, is applauded by tech experts and others concerned about economic justice. Unfortunately, the acquisition process that would provide those benefits is being slowed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). 

The positive impact of this business alliance could be huge. Verizon announced late last fall that it will acquire TracFone from América Móvil in a deal worth up to $6.9 billion, potentially improving phone service for more than 20 million subscribers. 

TracFone services the prepaid mobile market disproportionately relied upon by communities of color and lower-income consumers. This alliance will enhance digital equity as prepaid mobile customers deserve the same access, quality and opportunities as post-paid or monthly subscribers do. 

With Verizon, TracFone customers will have more choices for phones and features, better services and the ability to access new features and 5G networks, but with the same flexibility and control that comes with pre-paid plans. 

A recent article co-written by California Hispanic and Asian business leaders encouraged the CPUC to speed up the process, noting that “Lifeline provides discounted cellphone access to low-income subscribers in California and across the country. By acquiring TracFone and its Lifeline service, Verizon will be able to bring Lifeline to a new network in California and thus bring competition for low-income subscribers.” 

Being connected is crucial these days for all Californians working from home, looking for work or seeking information on health care and other vital services.

But more than six months after this announcement, the acquisition is still not yet complete as the principals await regulatory approval. If approval is not expedited, it could reportedly take until late 2021, delaying or even “jeopardizing the continuity of mobile service thousands of Californians and hundreds of minority communities have come to rely on.” 

Finalizing this deal should be especially important to regulators worried about the welfare of lower-income families. The benefits it would provide to low-income consumers – primarily Blacks and Hispanics – could be lost, adding to the racial disparity exacerbated by COVID-19. 

Black and Hispanic people rely heavily on their smartphones for “health info, educational content and job-seeking,” according to a pre-COVID-19 report on smartphone adoption by Pew Research. The study reports that “nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of Hispanic smartphone owners have used their phone in the past year to research a health condition, which is similar to the share for Blacks. But Whites are less likely to say they’ve used a phone to seek out health information.” 

The study also says that Black and Hispanic smartphone owners are especially likely to use their phones for job-related activities, such as seeking or applying for jobs.

In addition, “Mobile education is a bigger part of the smartphone experience for Hispanics – 45 percent of Hispanic smartphone owners have used their mobile device to take an online class or look up educational content in the past year. That share is 32 percent for Blacks and only 26 percent for Whites,” the Pew study reports. 

Being connected is crucial these days for all Californians working from home, looking for work or seeking information on health care and other vital services. Access to up-to-date technology and Verizon’s record for innovation and quality will ensure customers are not left behind. 

Approving Verizon’s acquisition of TracFone should be one of the FCC’s and CPUC’s top priorities. We cannot justify further delaying the benefits it will provide to our state’s minority and low-income communities. 

Award-winning veteran journalist Hazel Trice Edney is president and CEO of Trice Edney Communications and editor-in-chief of Trice Edney News Wire. She is former editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service and Blackpressusa.com and former interim executive director of the NNPA Foundation. She can be reached by email at hazeltriceedney@hotmail.com.