New Infrastructure Bill Seeks to Bridge Digital Divide

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What is the infrastructure bill, anyway?

In November of 2021, President Biden signed a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill into law. A portion of the bill–$65 billion, to be exact–is allocated for upgrading access to broadband speed internet nationwide. This unprecedented amount of funding is set to be the largest investment into telecommunications by the public in the history of the country.

Why it matters

The digital divide has been brought to the forefront by the pandemic; if there was ever a loud, and encompassing way to drive home how important access was to those who needed to listen, it was when a significant number of school systems and employers sent everyone home to learn and work virtually. Even access to basic medical care has become contingent on internet access as many providers switched to telehealth appointments, making access to reliable internet became life or death for people.

As it stands the digital divide hits rural, low-income areas and POC communities disproportionately. The Pew Research Center’s data shows 65% of Hispanic responders and 71% of Black responders have access to broadband, whereas 80% of white adults report access. Trying to get an actual, real time headcount, however, has proven difficult; access surveys have wildly different totals, with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) claiming those without reliable broadband access number approximately 16 million, while Microsoft claims the number is closer to 120 million. The wild variation emphasizes why this is such a huge undertaking, both to implement the infrastructure itself and to oversee the implementation from a household access standpoint. 

“We now have a once-in-a-generation chance to bring broadband to all Americans. Let’s get to work.”

FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks

What will it do

The bill approaches the problem from a few different angles: regulations, access barriers, implementation studies, and the physical infrastructure rollout itself.

On the regulation side, the FCC is expected to adopt rules within two years regarding “digital redlining” for internet service providers (ISPs). “Digital redlining” is when companies decline to build or offer services in areas they see as unprofitable; this usually translates to low income or rural areas. They are also required to adopt equal access rules that echo the Library Bill of Rights, determining and defining what equal access looks like and preventing discrimination based on religion, ethnicity, color, income, race, or nation of origin. It also establishes the minimum speed at 100 megabits (Mbps) for downloads and 20 Mbps for uploads; that translates to less than a second download time for an ebook, unbuffered streaming in 4K on up to 4 devices, and clear zoom meetings with the camera on.

Another small piece will make the Emergency Broadband Benefit program permanent. While the discount was reduced from up to $50 to $30, the discount must be applied to any of the plans available rather than a select few chosen by the ISP. 

The Digital Equity Act, which has $2.75 billion allocated from the broadband expansion package, will help states develop and implement comprehensive plans to ensure the expansions of broadband access will reach underserved communities and ensure equal access in compliance with the FCC’s new regulations. Funding from the Digital Equity Act can go to tangible projects, like digital literacy programs or school Wi-Fi hotspots, or to implementation studies. 

The bulk of the funding, though, is set aside for rolling out the hardware needed; all of the regulation in the world is meaningless if the infrastructure doesn’t exist to accomplish it. The way the funding is set to distribute allows each state and their local telecom companies to expand what they have rather than starting from scratch, allowing local companies a chance against telecom giants like AT&T, Comcast, or Verizon. The funding does come with a small catch: ISPs that receive any federal funding for expanding their coverage areas are required to offer low-cost services to eligible low-income households. 

What’s next 

The rollout for such a massive, once in a generation infrastructure upgrade will take time. The FCC, as mentioned above, has two years to draft and finalize their regulations. Some things, like the discounts and affordability aspects, should go into effect relatively quickly if they haven’t already. The hardware rollouts will take significantly longer; between the implementation audits and the installation itself, this will realistically take several years, if not decades. To put this into perspective, the Eisenhower freeway system took over thirty years to complete.

With the funding guaranteed and the regulations in the pipeline, it will be interesting to see how this rolls out nationwide. There will likely be gaps, unforeseen delays, and other issues, but it is a $65 billion step in the right direction.

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