Infrastructure News

Guest column: Infrastructure bill could close PA’s digital divide | Opinion

Congress is moving ahead with an infrastructure deal that includes $65 billion to bring high-speed internet to those still cut off from the online world.

If bipartisan consensus prevails, this bill has a chance to address both dimensions of America’s digital divide: doing right by rural residents who don’t have broadband available in their communities, and urbanites who struggle to connect to the broadband on their doorsteps.

In Montgomery County, we’re fortunate to already be among the “digital haves.” Our communities already have excellent connectivity — more than 99% have service available, and more than 90% have both fiber and cable options.

But we know that our county can’t survive as an island of prosperity in a sea of precarity. As taxpayers and fellow citizens, we all have a stake in expanding broadband access, reviving rural communities, and developing a digitally skilled workforce.

The past 18 months have taught us that broadband connections are indispensable for families to educate their kids, consult with medical professionals, access social benefits and participate in civic life.

That’s why we should be rooting for Congress to pass this infrastructure bill, which builds on proven public and private initiatives and learns from past mistakes.

Common ground must be based on common sense. We need to build on what’s already working — and speed public resources to fix what’s not. An estimated 96% Americans already have access to broadband, at far faster average speeds than are found in Europe. But that still leaves at least 14 million rural Americans who don’t have networks available.

We know what will work and what won’t. To fill out the rural gaps, this bill wisely focuses its buildout dollars on the areas that don’t already have high-speed broadband infrastructure. It encourages every qualified provider and technology to compete to offer the best solutions. And it won’t squander limited funding subsidizing redundant networks in areas that are already connected.

In short, this approach learns from the mistakes of the rural broadband programs in the 2009 stimulus that wasted billions building networks in already-wired areas.

And as we alleviate the Rural Digital Divide, we must also address the Urban Digital Divide. Here in Pennsylvania — and across America — the urban challenge is adoption, not availability. In Philadelphia, for example, 99% of households have broadband on their doorsteps but only 70% subscribe.

The sensible solution is direct assistance to low-income families to get and stay connected. This assistance should be coupled with digital literacy programs to help them understand why and how to go online.

Fortunately, policymakers can build on public and private programs with proven records of keeping hard-pressed households online.

Broadband providers have connected millions of low-income families through low-cost programs, often for only about $10 per month. During the pandemic, Congress built on this progress by creating a $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program, providing low-income families with up to $50 a month for their internet subscriptions.

The program is working: millions of families enrolled since it launched in May. And now the infrastructure bill proposes to extend this program for years into the future, committing 14 billion to make sure every American family will have the means to buy home broadband.

As the bill now moves over to the House of Representatives, some activists and special interests may push to reject the compromise in hopes of getting a better deal. But with such a tenuous bipartisan balance, there’s a real risk in allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good. Our representatives in Washington would do better to take this deal — and start getting these resources out to the communities that need them as quickly as possible.

Congress must bridge its partisan divides to pass this bill that will close the digital divide. Let’s get this done, so we can move on to the real work of getting everyone connected.

Ken Lawrence Jr. is Vice Chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners.

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