Can Biden close the digital divide?

·3 min read

Broadband should be a utility that just works. But for many Americans, high-speed internet ... well, isn't. Or worse, it simply isn't available or affordable.

The nation's long-existing digital divide — the gap between individuals who have access to affordable high-speed internet and those who don't — has persisted for years but was highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. And as a growing number of companies gear up for hybrid working arrangements, home internet connections remain crucial for many Americans.

Biden's big broadband push

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are drumming up bipartisan support for their sweeping infrastructure proposal, which in part aims to upgrade America's broadband infrastructure and expand access to affordable high-speed internet, particularly in unserved and underserved areas of the country. That includes people without any internet access, along with those living in areas with only one or two broadband service providers. The great majority of Americans — roughly two-thirds — live in one of these areas, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

Under the current FCC policy, in place since 2015, the minimum standard for broadband is defined as download speeds of 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of 3 Mbps.

[ Related: Senators ask the FCC to change the definition of high-speed broadband ]

A recent study by Microsoft estimates that more than 157 million Americans are using the internet at sub-broadband speeds.

The White House says Biden's plan would build "future proof" broadband infrastructure in unserved areas and focus support on networks "owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, nonprofits and cooperatives."

[ Related: America's surprising breeding ground for inequality: The internet ]


The broadband infrastructure price tag — will it be enough?

Biden in April called for $100 billion over eight years to build a high-speed broadband infrastructure en route to achieving 100% coverage across the nation, but Senate Republicans have since persuaded him to shrink the plan's price tag to $65 billion.

[ Related: Biden responds to critics who say his infrastructure plan is 'too big' ]

"We believe we can still achieve universal access to affordable high-speed internet at your lower funding level, though it will take longer," the White House said in a memo to Senate Republicans in May. "Any funding agreement would need to be paired with reforms to ensure these investments create good jobs, promote greater competition, and close the digital divide."

[ Related: Here's what's in Biden's counteroffer on infrastructure ]

While the Biden administration made the decision to decrease its proposed investment in an effort to reach "common ground" with Republicans, the budget cut seems contrary to the president's intentions. What's more, it doesn't seem very practical.

So how much will it actually cost to close the digital divide? A recent study by Tufts University estimates that $240 billion would be necessary to fill in the gap.

[ Related: Digital and economic divides hamper COVID-19 vaccination rate ]

'Multiple paths forward'

Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Arizona, have been leading the effort as lawmakers and the Biden administration work to grind out the details of the infrastructure deal. "We're continuing to refine a proposal that can get support from both sides of the aisle," Portman said.

[ Related: Selling the bipartisan infrastructure deal won't be easy ]

Last week, however, Biden asked Democratic leaders in Congress to lay the groundwork for passing some or all of the original package on their own in case no deal can ultimately be made with Republican lawmakers.

"His view is that there are multiple paths forward," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

By Jackie Nash

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