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Next infrastructure bill aims to end ‘digital divide’

In the big infrastructure bill that Democrats hope to pass, making sure that every American has high-speed internet access is a goal

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn wants enough investment in the next infrastructure bill to end the digital divide.
House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn wants enough investment in the next infrastructure bill to end the digital divide. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Now that President Joe Biden has signed into law the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package that Congress passed last week, Democratic lawmakers are beginning to focus on the next big-ticket item on their legislative agenda, a massive infrastructure package, and the broadband money they plan to include in it.

Several coronavirus-related aid packages that Congress passed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic included money for broadband, but not on the scale that Democrats are eyeing for the upcoming package. Last week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said broadband would be among the priorities for the upcoming infrastructure package, which she called “big, bold and transformational.”

Right on cue, all 32 Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee proposed a far-reaching infrastructure measure that would authorize more than $109 billion to expand broadband access throughout the country in an effort to close what’s become known as “the digital divide,” the gap between those who can access the internet at home and those who cannot.

Of that total, $80 billion would be set aside for deploying new broadband networks or expanding existing ones to reach those who currently can’t get a signal. The committee said the investment would be enough to drive 100 percent connectivity throughout the country.

The Federal Communications Commission would be responsible for awarding three-fourths of the $80 billion through a national bidding process, according to the bill summary, to “ensure the efficient distribution of the funds to areas that don’t have high-speed broadband internet service today.” The remainder of the funds would be given to the states to fill in connectivity gaps.

An additional $15 billion would go toward implementing Next Generation 911 services, including systems that accept text messages, images or videos in emergencies when a phone call is not possible. Another $5 billion would be used to subsidize low-interest financing for broadband deployment projects and $8 billion in subsidies to help low-income families and students afford their monthly internet bill.

The proposed legislation, backed by Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., is one of the leading contenders to make up the broadband aspect of the coming infrastructure package. But it’s not the only one. (It wasn’t even the only one last week.)

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., last Thursday reintroduced legislation to authorize $94 billion in broadband spending. The legislation, also backed by Pallone, overlaps to an extent with the bill introduced by Energy and Commerce Democrats but has provisions specifically aimed at deploying service in unserved and underserved communities.

“Access to broadband today will have the same dramatic impact on rural communities as the rural electrification efforts in the last century,” Clyburn said in a statement. “When I formed the Rural Broadband Task Force, our mission was to address the digital divide. The disparate effects of that divide have been amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic and exposed the urgency of ensuring universal access to high-speed internet.”

Clyburn’s proposal won immediate support from Democratic commissioners at the Federal Communications Commission, including acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, as well as a wide variety of industry groups and advocacy organizations.

“For the last year the conversation around closing the digital divide has centered on short-term, urgent solutions necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” John Windhausen Jr., executive director of the nonprofit Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition, said in a statement. “While these efforts are critical, we also need long-term solutions to address the enormous inequities in our broadband landscape so we are better prepared for the next crisis.”

So far it isn’t clear exactly how Democrats plan to move their infrastructure bill through Congress. Party leaders have left open the possibility of bypassing the Senate filibuster by passing the infrastructure package through the budget reconciliation process, similar to last week’s relief package, but they say they first want to appeal for Republican support.

Broadband, especially in rural areas, is a longtime priority for Republican lawmakers, but they have their own ideas for how it should be deployed. Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, the top Republican on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, earlier this month announced legislation that would use proceeds from an FCC spectrum auction to establish a rural broadband fund worth up to $65 billion.

“This legislation would preserve valuable resources to expand broadband access in unserved areas, secure the nation’s communications supply chain, and promote the development of next-generation technologies,” Wicker said in a statement.

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