Digital Gap Solution gets a boost as Biden signs an $ 1.2 trillion infrastructure bill


President Joe Biden signs the law on infrastructure investment and jobs as he is surrounded by lawmakers and members of his cabinet during a ceremony at South Lawn in the White House on November 15, 2021 in Washington, DC. The $ 1.2 trillion package will provide funding for public infrastructure projects, including improvements to the country’s transportation network, increased broadband access in rural areas and projects to modernize water and energy systems.

Kenny Holston / Getty Images

This story is a part of Crosses the broadband gap, CNET’s coverage of how the country is working towards making broadband access universal.

President Joe Biden on Monday signed a $ 1.2 trillion two-partisan infrastructure bill into law, paving the way for much-needed funding for everything from roads and bridges to expanding ports and airport capacity to upgrading electrical networks. A small but important part of the infrastructure bill could also be a lifeline on the digital divide.

The signing of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act marks a major legislative victory for Biden after months of heated negotiations among Democrats. The House of Representatives adopted the massive spending package earlier this month in a vote of 228-206 that largely fell along party lines. The Senate passed the bill, which will provide $ 550 billion in new federal spending, by 69 to 30 votes in August.

In a rare moment of bipartisanship, some Republicans and most Democrats who supported the legislation gathered in the White House to sign the bill. Not all of the Republicans who voted for the popular legislation were present. This group of legislators has been criticized and in some cases death threats for supporting the infrastructure package. Former President Donald Trump has called on Republicans who support the sale of legislation and has encouraged primary struggles to oust those who supported the historic package in the upcoming midterm elections.

Before signing the bill, Biden noted that the spending measure was a long way off, as Trump had repeatedly promised but failed to deliver an infrastructure package.

“Here in Washington, we’ve heard countless speeches, promises, and white papers from experts. But today we finally get this done,” Biden said. “And my message to the American people is: America is moving again. And your life will change for the better.”

Legislation almost fell apart as Democrats battled with each other for more than a month, as progressives used the bipartisan infrastructure law as leverage to gain support from moderate Democrats for the larger Build Back Better Act, which is expected to focus on social spending programs as universal pre- k, paid leave and money for affordable childcare and housing.

On the one hand, the debate was progressive in Parliament, led by Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat who had threatened to lower the law if the much larger “human infrastructure” bill was not passed through a Senate budget vote in the context of the traditional infrastructure legislation. On the other hand were two moderate Senate Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who had repeatedly said the $ 3.5 trillion price tag was too violent.

Progressive Democrats finally agreed to vote for the Infrastructure Act after moderate Democrats assured them they would vote for the larger Build Back Better Act, which focuses on social spending.

Meanwhile, the stalemate had left the fate of the $ 1.2 trillion two-part infrastructure bill, which included $ 65 billion in federal funding for broadband investments, in limbo.

Broadband experts had prepared for the worst and feared that a stalemate that resulted in Parliament not voting on the two-tier infrastructure bill would disappear once in a generation the opportunity to finally close the digital divide, a problem that is a tough politics. creators for decades.

“I think we’ll get a shot at this,” Mark Buell, regional vice president, North America, for the Internet Society, said in September.

Late. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat who has pushed for greater investment in affordable high-speed broadband, said the funding will have a significant impact on broadband across the country.

“We are on the verge of making the largest investment ever in affordable high-speed broadband in the history of the United States,” he said in a statement. “This new funding says we do not have to accept a country where every American is shut out of the broadband access they need to compete and thrive in the 21st century.”

The opportunity of life

The two-tier infrastructure bill includes a $ 42 billion commitment to implement broadband where it does not yet exist. Where broadband is available, it promises an additional $ 14.2 billion to create a permanent $ 30-a-month subsidy program to help low-income Americans afford service. The bill offers an additional $ 2.75 billion for digital equity and inclusion efforts that could end digital redlining, practices with ISPs avoiding lower-income areas – typically neighborhoods with large populations of people of color – where they do not think they will make money .

For the first time in more than two decades, politicians see a real chance to make a difference.

“Out of crisis is opportunity,” FCC Acting President Jessica Rosenworcel said in an interview with CNET in September. “With this crisis, we have ended the days when we talk about broadband as a ‘nice-to-have’. Politicians everywhere now understand that it is a “need-to-have” for everyone throughout this country. ”

In 2010, the Obama administration’s national broadband plan presented a guide to developing a policy to address the issue. But the report, released some time after Congress allocated stimulus money in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, did not spur concerted action, said Blair Levin, now a Wall Street analyst but former official of the Federal Communications Commission under Clinton. administration and the US government. lead author of the national broadband plan.

“Ten years ago, when we wrote the national broadband plan, we formulated many of the same things that people are quoting now,” he said. “But it was not a priority. There was not much political capital. There was also no money left to tackle these problems.”

In 2017, the FCC estimated that it would cost $ 40 billion to install fiber networks for 98% of households. The agency said in 2021 that it has made some progress in ensuring that more Americans are connected to broadband. From 2018 to 2019, the FCC said the number of Americans missing at least a 25 megabit broadband connection per year second, fell by more than 20% to 14.5 million Americans.

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Those who are left without access to reliable broadband at an affordable price are disproportionately many people in colored communities, rural areas and low-income households. Data from the Pew Research Center show that 80% of white adults in the United States report having a broadband connection, while 71% of black respondents say they have access to broadband and only 65% ​​of Hispanics report having broadband.

In large rural areas, high-speed Internet access is simply non-existent. In many other communities, service is often unreliable, unaffordable or too slow.

The COVID-19 pandemic made it clear that Americans need broadband to do everything from going to work to going to school to access health care. Congress pledged billions in federal COVID relief dollars to provide grants to millions of Americans to keep them online.

Levin said the worldwide shutdown due to COVID is the driving force behind several investments to close the digital divide.

“COVID-19 was a better evangelist for why we need to solve this problem than I ever could be,” he said. “COVID taught lots of officials why you need every school child to have broadband in their homes and why the rural areas need it for health care. There is real bipartisan support now.”

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