Lawmakers have bemoaned the nation’s nagging digital divide for years, warning that gaps in broadband internet access in red and blue states alike are hurting Americans’ health, education and job prospects. The hulking bipartisan infrastructure package before the Senate this week would try to finally slam it shut.
Alongside old-fashioned public works projects like roads, bridges, and highways, senators have included $65 billion meant to connect hard-to-reach rural communities to high-speed internet and help sign up low-income city dwellers who cannot afford it. Other legal changes seek to stoke competition and transparency among service providers that could help drive down prices.
“Access to affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband is essential to full participation in modern life in the United States,” the legislation states. Noting the country’s growing reliance on connectivity for tele-health, basic business transactions and remote schooling — particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic — it makes the case that it is in the government’s interest to intervene.
Official estimates vary, but most suggest that tens of millions of Americans lack reliable access to high-speed internet, many of them people of color, members of rural communities or other low-income groups. President Biden had initially proposed $100 billion to try to bring that number to zero, but he agreed to lower the overall price tag to strike a compromise with Republicans.
Both parties appear poised to walk away with substantial investments for their states and pet policies. The bulk of the money, $42 billion, would go directly toward funding service improvements in the form of grants, with at least $100 million reserved for all 50 states and another $100 million to be split between American territories. But the bill would also allocate $14 billion to convert an emergency pandemic-era program designed to give monthly subsidies to low-income Americans to pay for internet service into a permanent Affordable Connectivity Fund doling out $30 subsidies for service.
Democrats also fought to secure the inclusion of the Digital Equity Act, legislation drafted by Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, to encourage states to develop comprehensive plans to ensure access to high-speed internet is distributed equitably among traditionally underserved groups and educate them about how to access digital resources.
The bill also sets aside special funds for the Appalachian Regional Commission, a federal economic development body co-chaired by Gayle Manchin, the wife of Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, one of the bill’s principal authors and a key Democratic swing vote.
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