Pundits and pedestrians have quipped that we should all be thankful a disaster with the magnitude and saturation of COVID-19 came when we are all so wonderfully connected thanks to broadband. Had this happened even 25 years ago, they observe, we would have seen our entire way of life come to a halt.
But for many rural Americans in regard to technology, most specifically broadband deployment, we are living 25 years in the past.
Realizing this, the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing recently to examine ongoing Federal Communications Commission initiatives and the use of CARES Act funding to maintain and expand broadband to rural America.
The consensus of those testifying comes as no surprise – the digital divide persists, though it’s not just limited to rural households. In fact, more than a quarter of the United States does not have broadband at home.
Because of access issues, including privacy concerns when accessing the internet on shared devices out of the home, there can be no blanket solutions using web-based technology or systems to move forward with life essentials: teaching and learning, work and business — or personal finance.
So why, then do we continue to see companies large and small expect all consumers to receive documents such as bank statements and investment information electronically, forcing them instead to opt out of digital distribution and pay – sometimes as much as $18 per statement, per a recent discussion with a coalition member – to receive some of their most sensitive information by mail?
Banks and investment firms, insurances and utility companies, wireless carriers and more are all industries in which paper options have become limited in the past several years. While some allow consumers to see savings if they choose to receive bills electronically, others actively penalize those who cannot or do not want to have crumbs of sensitive data strewn on various platforms.
Just yesterday, the Department of Labor issued a final rule making e-delivery the default for important retirement plan disclosures and statements.
This issue has been largely ignored, maybe because many people believe the myth of the backwards rural or older American that reads something like: “We all have access available but choose instead to remain disconnected.”
If the COVID-19 crisis has done nothing else, it has helped expose this narrative as fiction.
A Pew Research study in 2019 showed that 10 percent of Americans are not online, many by choice but some — regardless of desire, economics or aptitude — because there is no option. From our own Grange members struggling with basic access, living in remote areas from Nevada to West Virginia, we know today in 2020 there are homes and communities with no cellphone service reception, let alone internet access by cellular device.
This crisis will require us to re-evaluate nearly every structure and assumption we have, and the protection afforded consumers over their financial accounts, reporting and access should be on that list.
No one — including our rural citizens, elderly, low-income and anyone else whose internet access is limited or jeopardized — should have to work to opt out of something they never would have opted into.
A majority of those without broadband at home — 41 percent of seniors 65 and older, 44 percent of those with an annual household income of $30,000 or less and 54 percent of those who didn’t complete high school – fall into protected classes, and to require payment for their own statements of these populations is tantamount to discrimination.
If that is not incentive enough for change, popular opinion should be.
A 2019 survey conducted by Two Sides North America found 86 percent of Americans believe they should have the right to choose how they receive communications, and 74 percent believe you should not be charged for paper bills and statements.
The desire and the need based on limited access is clear, and the time is right. Let’s urge our legislators from our state capitals to Capitol Hill to turn back the clock on the Department of Labor’s digital delivery ruling and to enact legislation requiring all companies with consumer statements and billing to provide — at no cost — paper account information and put in place only opt-in — not opt-out — structures.
Betsy Huber is the president of the National Grange, America’s oldest rural and agricultural advocacy organization with more than 150,000 members across the country; she previously served on the FCC’s Rural Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee and now serves on the commission’s Task Force for Reviewing the Connectivity and Technology Needs of Precision Agriculture in the United States.
Phil Riebel is the president of Two Sides North America and oversees the campaign for Keep Me Posted North America, a coalition of consumer groups, charities and businesses that advocates for the right of every consumer in North America to choose, free of charge, how they receive important information – on paper or electronically – from their service providers.
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