By Rick Boucher
August 25, 2021 at 5:00 am ET
At last, there’s some good old-fashioned congressional bipartisanship on major legislation. This month, Republican and Democratic senators reached across the aisle to adopt a compromise supported by the president that promises the largest investment in America’s physical infrastructure in almost a century. When passed by the House, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will be an historic achievement and a boon to both U.S. growth and our global competitiveness.
The bipartisan bill will unleash urgently needed investment in America’s crumbling roads and bridges. It will bolster clean transportation, clean water and clean power. It takes major strides in closing the digital divide by building nationwide broadband internet facilities largely in rural areas and helping to make broadband subscriptions more affordable for low-income families.
The legislation adopts a smart approach for achieving universal broadband availability and adoption. It sensibly directs nearly $42.5 billion for broadband buildout — first to unserved areas, where at least 80 percent of potential service locations are without broadband speeds meeting the Federal Communications Commission’s current standard of 25 mbps download and 3mbps upload (25/3) speeds.
After a state certifies that the needs of unserved areas are addressed, deployment to underserved areas, defined as at least 80 percent of locations without 100/20 broadband speeds, will be undertaken with remaining funding. To assure that the broadband providers best situated to serve individual locations are brought to the task, the legislation wisely makes eligible for funding all carriers meeting experience and performance standards, without prioritizing some types of carriers over others.
Another $14.2 billion will be devoted to helping Americans most in need afford broadband service in the form of a $30-per-month benefit.
These broadband investments will be transformative. As the Census Bureau puts it, broadband access is “credited with having beneficial effects on individual empowerment, economic growth and community development.” Having a broadband connection has truly become a necessity for day-to-day living.
While America’s broadband providers have invested nearly $1.8 trillion in the nation’s networks over the past 25 years, connecting more than 85 percent of the American population, nearly 1 in 5 rural Americans still lacks access to broadband internet service. The $65 billion investment in high-speed internet connectivity will move the nation much closer to the goal of every American being online.
Time is of the essence. From enactment of the bill to the funding allocation process to broadband buildout, delay now means it could be years before households in the digital dark are lit with broadband. Time without broadband adds up to lost opportunities, from education to employment. EducationSuperHighway reports that nearly 10 million students still lack a reliable high-speed connection necessary to complete their coursework at home and are falling behind. According to the National Skills Coalition, roughly half of workers with limited or no digital skills are stuck in the bottom or lower-middle quintile of earnings.
The pandemic exacerbated these inequalities, but the internet is a powerful force that enables social mobility. The faster the bipartisan infrastructure deal reaches President Joe Biden’s desk for signature, the sooner progress toward digital equity can be made.
Democrats and Republicans in the Senate teamed up to tackle the nation’s infrastructure challenges, bringing the best ideas of both parties to the solution. Now that cooperation between parties is at last in evidence again, members of the House should take their cue from the Senate and work together to pass this landmark legislation.
Passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act by the Senate reminded Americans that their representatives in Congress can elevate the greater good above partisanship to solve major national challenges. Passage of the bill by the House would build confidence that, in times of great need, Congress stands ready to respond.
Rick Boucher is honorary chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance and served as a Democratic member of the U.S. House for 28 years, chairing the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and the Internet.
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