Solving the Digital Divide Locally
“All politics is local,” Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill famously said. The former Boston congressman knew that people understand and care most about what’s happening in their hometown. The same is true for closing the “Digital Divide” – the gulf between those who have access to high-speed Internet and those who do not.
Across the nation, local leaders know that the Digital Divide is hurting their communities. In towns and cities across America, mayors know which streets lack high-speed Internet access; teachers know which students cannot connect to do their schoolwork; the Chamber of Commerce knows which businesses struggle with low Internet speeds; and doctors know which patients cannot connect for a telehealth appointment.
The Federal Communications Commission conservatively estimates that 19 million Americans, or 6% of the total population, lack such web access. But the FCC and other federal agencies lack local knowledge of who is affected by these inequities. Fortunately, a serious conversation is happening on how to empower local leaders to spearhead efforts that would connect every American to fast, affordable Internet. This could not happen at a better time, because the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the dangers of being one of the country’s unconnected.
Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes recently addressed how the pandemic is affecting the state’s schools: “Our educators are working incredibly hard to support all of their students so they can continue to feel connected to school and access rigorous educational content during this pandemic, but we know that our success in providing equitable opportunities to all students hinges on the ability of students to access broadband services . . . Broadband access is now an essential school supply. It’s non-negotiable.”
Closing the Digital Divide must happen at the local level, and that is where Congress needs to direct the federal dollars to solve the problem. In legislation introduced last year, Congress included $6.25 billion in a block grants to states and Native American tribes for bridging the Digital Divide and enabling remote learning, telework, telehealth, and other essential activities. Every state would have received an initial $100 million to be used with wide discretion, with more dollars coming behind it. Indeed, state and local leaders, digital-equity advocates, and broadband companies contemplated how they could use this funding to eliminate America’s “broadband deserts.” But, in the end, this funding was not included in the final legislation signed into law by President Trump.
Still, a group of committed advocates across the nation are continuing the fight to fix the Digital Divide. “President Biden has a unique moment to invoke the spirit of FDR and ensure broadband to every American like Roosevelt did with electricity,” says Mississippi Public Utilities Commission Chair Brandon Presley. “This could be his ‘moonshot,’ showing Americans that he intends to do the most meaningful thing for their quality of life since FDR and the rural electrification movement brought them power.”
Fortunately, congressional champions of ending the Digital Divide – like Senators Angus King (I-Maine) and Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) – are working to get this important local funding included in the recent bipartisan COVID-relief negotiations. “High-speed internet access is an essential service in today’s world,” King said, “and it should be accessible and affordable for every American.”
Bennet added, “Every small business, student, or worker without broadband access is a policy failure – especially in a pandemic. It’s long past time we invested in a 21st century broadband infrastructure for America, and I plan to keep up the pressure until we get this done.”
Brandon Pressley is right: the time has come for our broadband moonshot. With the Biden administration’s focus on infrastructure, champions like Senators King and Bennet, vocal state and local leaders, and pressure from all sides to do something about the Digital Divide, we remain hopeful that Congress will fund the local solutions best able to connect us all to the Internet.
Elin Swanson Katz is the VP of Utilities for Tilson, the former Consumer Counsel from Connecticut, and past President of the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates.