Opinion

With Election Over, Congress Must Act to Bridge Digital Divide

With the exception of a pair of Georgia runoffs, the 2020 election has moved into the rearview mirror and now Congress must come together to pass a COVID relief package that includes substantial funding to bridge the digital divide.

For the millions of Americans who lack access to a broadband connection, the pandemic has exacerbated the many challenges associated with the digital divide. Students without broadband at home can struggle to keep up with remote learning and those who have returned to in-person classes still must grapple with the homework gap. Patients may be unable to access telehealth solutions that can keep them healthy and allow them to avoid strained facilities.

A lack of access to broadband can mean a lack of access to specialists and internet of things innovation in health care. Farmers and ranchers can be placed at a competitive disadvantage in a global market, unable to unlock the potential of precision agriculture technology and remote monitoring equipment that can optimize irrigation, conserve resources and increase yields.

This is an urgent challenge and the American people want action. A recent poll conducted by the Internet Innovation Alliance finds a whopping 90 percent of voters want Congress to dedicate federal resources to expanding connectivity. Another 88 percent of voters say Congress should assist those unable to afford broadband service. Nearly two-thirds of surveyed voters agreed broadband connectivity was an urgent challenge that demanded immediate action from lawmakers in Congress.

That immediate action should take the form of funding, as part of a new COVID relief package, to expand broadband access for unserved and underserved Americans to help rapidly and cost-effectively eliminate the digital divide.

It will be critical for new funding to be guided by key principles, to maximize the reach and long-term positive impact of resources brought to bear against this challenge.

Funding should be focused on rapid-service deployments so long as there are clear requirements that service meets at least the current definition of broadband set by the Federal Communications Commission.

New broadband funding, as part of COVID relief, should also place priority on targeting known challenges. Once and for all, we must close the digital divide and connect consumers who are unserved.

Also, many schools continue to conduct remote or hybrid learning. This places students without connectivity at home, already at risk of falling behind due to the homework gap, at a particular disadvantage. With health care systems in certain regions of the country strained by rising cases, the expansion of access to telehealth will be critical to keeping Americans healthy and alleviating pressure on overburdened health care facilities.

Specific needs, like supporting remote learning, eliminating the homework gap and expanding access to telehealth, should be prioritized.

In addition, any new funding from Congress should use competitive bidding to minimize cost and support cost-effective and results-driven deployments.

Broadband funding must also be technology-neutral. Broadband technology is dynamic and evolving and different regions of the country can be best connected by deploying different solutions. The most cost-effective route to closing the digital divide in America involves an all-of-the-above approach and policymakers and regulators should not be in the business of choosing technological winners and losers. In providing funding to expand connectivity, policymakers should instead prioritize the speed of deployment, the number of unserved Americans who can be reached and the cost effectiveness of projects.

Similarly, any program should minimize distortions to the existing marketplace.

Given the urgency to expand broadband connectivity, funding legislation should also seek to minimize administrative burdens that involve red tape and pose burdensome obstacles to deployment and implementation.

In addressing the digital divide as a critical component of a COVID relief package, Congress must also fully fund implementation of its own critical legislation to fix the nation’s broadband mapping data. Earlier this year, Congress passed on a bipartisan basis, and the president signed into law, the Broadband DATA Act, which will help more accurately measure the full scale of the digital divide.

More precise broadband maps to accurately measure the full scale of the digital divide will better direct public and private investments in broadband deployments.

However, funding to implement more accurate maps has continued to be a barrier to solving this challenge, one that must be swiftly addressed by lawmakers.

By providing adequate funding to expand connectivity for Americans without access to broadband, keep Americans facing financial hardship connected and implement bipartisan broadband mapping solutions, lawmakers can build on recent positive progress.

The FCC, in particular, has taken commendable steps to address the broadband gap that can be built on, including by maximizing spectrum resources and clearing regulatory barriers to innovative solutions like TV white space , advancing the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund to direct $20.4 billion over 10 years to finance broadband deployments, implementing targeted programs like the Connected Care Pilot and COVID-19 Telehealth Program and protecting Americans’ connectivity during the pandemic by issuing the Keep Americans Connected Pledge.

But with the pandemic exacerbating the impact of the broadband gap for millions of Americans, Congress must now take bold and decisive action to completely eliminate the digital divide.

Richard T. Cullen is the executive director of Connect Americans Now.

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