Opinion

Urgency to Close Broadband Gap Crosses Rural, Urban Divide

Separated by more than 3,400 miles, life in U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman’s hometown of New York City and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s hometown of Ketchikan, Alaska, can seem worlds apart. But Americans living in rural and urban communities across the United States, even those separated by thousands of miles, face a common challenge in realizing the economic and educational opportunities that help make the American Dream possible: a lack of access to affordable and reliable broadband internet and digital tools.

Alaska currently sits in last place when American states are ranked on access to broadband. In New York City, where broadband infrastructure is widely present, 45 percent of adults still don’t use the internet at broadband speeds. This national problem requires comprehensive and permanent solutions and resources from Washington.

Murkowski, one of the participants in bipartisan infrastructure talks on Capitol Hill, recently noted how the broadband gap in her home state is a barrier to accessing vital services. Murkowski specifically pointed out that while broadband provides Americans access to critical telehealth services, it requires “adequate broadband availability.”

Bowman, vice chairman of the powerful U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor, said earlier this year that “the pandemic has exacerbated an already pressing need.”

“In the 21st century, we must rethink broadband” as a necessity “alongside gas, electric, and water,” Bowman said. “It’s been almost 80 years since the government began providing subsidized utilities to those in need. In our district alone, there are over 21,000 living in public housing, and their livelihoods depend on us bringing our understanding of essential utilities from the 1930s to modern times.”

Bowman is right that reliable, affordable broadband internet has become as essential to daily life as water and power. This is true whether you live in the Bronx or Ketchikan, Alaska. Closing the digital divide is not a rural or urban issue — it is an American issue.

As part of any infrastructure package, Congress must provide the necessary resources to expand broadband infrastructure and affordability to every American and close the broadband gap.

Today, more than 42 million Americans lack access to broadband and as many as 120 million Americans aren’t using the internet at broadband speeds. The challenge is especially acute in income-insecure communities, in both the urban and rural neighborhoods our organizations represent, where too many cannot afford broadband service or lack access to infrastructure, devices and skills learning.

Nationwide, more than 30 percent of Black households and 31 percent of Hispanic households do not have broadband internet. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing inequities in our society — including increasing the impact of the digital divide and undermining national efforts to improve racial equity.

The number of American students who lacked broadband service, a device or both needed to support distance learning at home grew from 15 million to 17 million during the pandemic. Students without internet access are less likely to develop digital skills and are more likely to have lower grade point averages and test scores, which significantly hinders their ability to attend college or university and pursue high-demand STEM careers. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the desperate need for reliable connections for school children.

Lack of broadband access undermines America’s ability to establish a future that ensures economic and educational opportunity regardless of zip code or skin color.

One model found that increasing broadband adoption by 10 percent would result in the creation of more than 806,000 additional jobs in just three years, an average annual increase of 269,000 jobs. This would mean real opportunity for communities that have been left at a disadvantage by structural challenges — like the digital divide — for too long.

It will take dedicated, lasting leadership to solve this challenge. A good first step would be a bipartisan infrastructure package that provides the resources necessary to ensure affordability and access for every American in every community.

It will be critical to ensuring those resources are allocated rapidly, equitably and effectively. This will require a further round of leadership and accountability from state and administrative leaders, since states and agencies like the Federal Communications Commission would likely be entrusted with administering the bulk of broadband funding.

It will also require looking beyond an infrastructure package to permanently address the digital divide.

Less than one week after it began, more than 1 million American households took advantage of an FCC program established in response to the pandemic to keep Americans facing financial insecurity connected. The Emergency Broadband Benefit relief program, recently expanded by acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, has been vital to lessening the impact of the pandemic and demonstrating the effectiveness of programs to support broadband adoption. Americans need a permanent, and widely available, program to continue and expand on this important work.

Broadband has the power to connect Americans separated by thousands of miles, creating a better economy for all and more opportunities for every corner of the nation. Congress has a unique opportunity to act. Lawmakers must meet the moment.

 

Richard T. Cullen is executive director of Connect Americans Now. Tom Ferree is chairman and CEO of Connected Nation. Betsy Huber is president of the National Grange.

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