In 2018, Congress provided funding to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to create a National Broadband Availability Map (NBAM) and to work with Federal Communications Commissionas well as state and local governments, nonprofits, network owners and operators and other stakeholders to achieve this goal.
State lawmakers should be thinking about how to go on one-time spending sprees — such as funding infrastructure projects, including broadband, largely underwritten by the trillion-dollar infrastructure bill. In recent years, state programs have received applications in excess of available funds, says Anna Read, senior officer for the Pew Charitable Trusts Broadband Access Initiative. “State grant programs to date have focused on expansion of last-mile infrastructure to unserved areas,” she says.
The urgency for wider access to high-speed Internet has been palpable in the past year. The federal government has ramped up its focus on the issue, devoting billions in funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the American Rescue Plan Act, and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. In turn, states are setting aside eye-popping amounts of money themselves. But is all that money enough to help everyone?
The recently signed $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill sets aside $65 billion to expand broadband access and equity across the nation. It is a once-in-a-generation investment that acknowledges how critical high-speed Internet is to quality of life and opportunity in America. The next move in broadband expansion belongs to the states, which are required to submit five-year action plans that illustrate how they will use the federal broadband funds to improve local economic development, education, health care and other vital needs.
Billions of federal dollars for broadband came with the stipulation that they benefit underserved populations. New projects that link last-mile access with affordability are paving the way for universal Internet service. The American Rescue Plan (ARP) included hundreds of billions of dollars for which broadband infrastructure was among the allowed uses. Infrastructure is not the only issue for those on the wrong side of the digital divide, however. Many who might have providers in their area cannot afford home service.
President Biden’s recently announced infrastructure proposal calls for a massive, unprecedented investment aimed at connecting all Americans to the Internet, one that has led to some digital equity experts calling it a potential game changer for their work. What does Biden’s plan need to do to fully address digital equity and Internet access in the United States? Experts say: availability is goog; adoption is better.
As many of the nation’s pupils close in on a year of virtual remote learning, public policy analysts are highlighting the scope of the digital divide and ways in which policymakers can close it. While policymakers have made efforts to expand access to computers and broadband since the COVID-19 pandemic began, analysts say up to 12 million K-12 students remain underserved.
As much as the pandemic is a challenge, the urgency it presents also provides an opportunity to finally make significant progress on these digital issues. To get started and provide a framework for future action, I recommend focusing on the following:
There's no better time for state and local governments to get serious about developing proactive approaches to keeping residents connected in the days, months and years following a natural disaster. Among the programs that should be advertised to disaster survivors is the federal Lifeline program, which provides a subsidy that covers all or a portion of the cost of wireless voice and internet services for low-income consumers who qualify.