By Jim Haigh, Keep Me Posted

If we care about closing the digital divide, we should also be concerned about the assault on paper options that millions need to cross over it.

Over 11 years ago, the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released the National Broadband Plan as a comprehensive roadmap to close the digital divide. The realities of pandemic life exposed how deep and wide the digital divide remains.

Policymakers, consumer advocates and media have been ringing the alarm bells over the social and economic impacts of widespread and persistent digital exclusion. Emergency funding has been made available to help subsidize costs for those who have broadband access but cannot afford it, and even more public investment for buildout in underserved communities is in the works.

But the question nobody is asking: why are the same vulnerable and disadvantaged populations having their access to paper-based communications removed, even while they remain trapped in the digital divide? The critical attention to digital disenfranchisement routinely ignores the active role that regulators and corporations are playing to diminish consumers’ existing communications options, stripping them of control against their will.

Back when the FCC released the National Broadband Plan, many corporations initiated cost-cutting efforts by peddling dubious greenwashing claims, while imploring consumers to opt in to e-billing and e-notices. As voluntary adoption of digital notices grew, some companies began charging additional fees for paper, aka “bills to get a paper bill” that became increasingly burdensome, a practice prohibited only in New York.

Over the last year, under all manner of COVID-19 and other pandemic pretexts, a staggering number of companies suddenly began switching their customers to electronic delivery without express consent. Some industries were even invited to do so by the regulators who oversee them. In just the last several months, the industries removing or hindering paper options grew to include banks and financial services, telecommunications and broadband providers, health insurers, investment and retirement plans, auto insurers, and even utilities.

According to a just released survey, nearly eight in 10 consumers believe that they should have the right to choose paper communications from their service providers, and 67% believe they should not be charged more to receive paper communications. The pandemic lessons of the vast digital divide show that people need more options in how they send and receive important information, with the default being the most easily and universally accessible option – paper. Those who cannot or choose not to access the internet, for whatever reason, should not be disadvantaged. The societal and economic costs of exclusion are just too high to ignore.

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