With great drama, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 became law on December 27, 2021. The $2.3 trillion COVID relief and government spending bill extended unemployment benefits and ensured the government can keep running. The $900 billion COVID relief provision includes over $7 billion to help improve connectivity in the U.S.
It is Day 1,421 of the Trump Administration. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, from Day 1, has insisted that closing the digital divide is the Trump FCC's top priority. This week, the FCC announced the winners of over $9 billion worth of rural broadband subsidies -- the "single largest step ever taken to close the digital divide," according to Chairman Pai. But looking at the results may leave millions of rural residents apprehensive -- and disconnected.
A new chapter in our ongoing COVID-response drama began this week when a bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers unveiled a $908 billion emergency relief plan. For many vulnerable people in the U.S., the lack of affordable broadband connections continues to hinder online learning and remote work. Will Congress finally pass economic relief and target support to reduce the digital divide?
Residential and small-business customers have too few options for fixed, robust broadband service, what we refer to as “High-Performance Broadband.” Solving our deployment and competition problems requires the construction of new broadband networks. In other words, we need more competition, and we need more broadband deployment. Our new policy brief concentrates on one solution—the construction of open-access, middle-mile networks.
In October 2019, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society issued Broadband for America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s. The agenda was comprehensive, constructed upon achievements in communities and insights from experts across the nation. The report outlined the key building blocks of broadband policy—deployment, competition, community anchor institutions, and digital equity (including affordability and adoption).
“Broadband” is short-hand for an “always-on,” high-speed internet connection provided by a company or other entity known as an “internet service provider” (ISP). We say “always-on” to differentiate contemporary internet connections from the dial-up era of the 1990s, when a user had to dial a telephone number through their computer to connect. Today, the internet comes to us uninterrupted and we cannot get “booted off” if someone lifts up a phone receiver. We say “high-speed” connection because not all internet connections are technically broadband (see below for more on this point).
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the General Assembly is considering Gov. Northam’s request to increase funding to bring better broadband to all Virginians. Such support is important, as students stay home and learn, adults stay home and work, and seniors stay home even as they visit their doctor. Funding for broadband would be an important step — and a wake-up call to the federal government. Virginia’s broadband challenges are multifaceted. In rural areas, nearly a third of households have no access to broadband.
State of Illinois Announces $300,000 Public Private Investment to Support Community-Driven Broadband Plans
The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) Office of Broadband announced the first recipients of the Illinois Connected Communities grant program, created to assist some of the most underserved areas of the state with building broadband capacity. Through cross-sector collaboration, this new program directs $150,000 in state-funded small grants for 12 community and local government partners to lead the development of strategic plans to ensure access, adoption, and utilization of high-speed broadband in their communities.
The Federal Communications is charged with “encourag[ing] the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans . . . by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market.” Available evidence demonstrates that the digital divide continues to narrow as more Americans than ever before have access to high-speed broadband.