The Washington Post

By Tony Romm

Thirty House and Senate Democrats unveiled a new $94 billion proposal Thursday to make broadband Internet access more accessible and affordable nationwide, aiming to remedy some of the digital inequalities that have kept millions of Americans offline during the coronavirus pandemic.

The new effort, chiefly written by Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), marks one of the most expensive, ambitious broadband packages proposed in recent years. It aims to commit record-breaking sums to bring Internet service to areas where it doesn’t exist, improve speeds in places where connectivity is sluggish and help families who are struggling to pay their monthly bills.

Closing the persistent gap between those who can sign on and those who cannot — known as the digital divide — long has counted among Democrats’ top policy priorities. But the issue has taken on new political urgency in the year since the coronavirus forced workers out of a job and students out of the classroom, leaving much of the country no choice but to rely on the Internet to participate in daily life.

“We’re not going to grow the economy in our communities all across the country without broadband,” Clyburn told The Washington Post. “The investments we’re making in this, and the build-out over three to four years, makes this one of the best infrastructure efforts we can undertake today.”

Even before the pandemic, the U.S. government had struggled to close the digital divide: At least 18 million Americans lacked reliable connectivity, federal regulators found in a report last year, cautioning at the time that the number might actually be higher. The problem is particularly pronounced in rural communities, where options for speedy Internet service are limited, as well as urban areas and tribal lands, where low-income families, and in some cases people of color, simply cannot afford access to the Web.

Democrats in Congress have advocated for federal spending to address those digital gaps, but their efforts have run into political opposition from Republicans, who at times question if the government should be funding new entrants into a private marketplace. But both parties have found recent accord as a result of the coronavirus, resulting in Congress having approved more than $14 billion over just the past four months to help families pay their bills and assist rural communities in getting online.

“This can help not only in health care and education but be a real boon to business,” Democratic Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said in a recent interview, adding there are “plenty of reasons to make this kind of investment.” He is not a sponsor of the new legislation.

Some of the money is tucked into the new stimulus that lawmakers adopted Wednesday, known as the American Rescue Plan, which sets aside $7 billion to help schools furnish the devices that students need to complete their classwork. The bill, largely adopted on party lines, also set aside an additional $10 billion in infrastructure spending that states can potentially put toward improving broadband within their borders.

But King said the stimulus spending is only the start of the debate. “I look on this bill as a down payment on a more significant broadband package in an infrastructure bill,” he said, noting that those additional sums could be in the tens of billions of dollars.

The new proposal put forward by House and Senate Democrats carries a $94 billion price tag, most of which would be set aside for a new federal program to build out broadband infrastructure in areas where Americans lack speedy service. The bill gives preference to projects that help rural and tribal areas or those that provide better, cheaper Internet to lower-income communities. Americans, as a result, could gain access to broadband networks that are much faster than they currently have.

The money seeks to close well-known gaps in states such as Minnesota, where Klobuchar said she has heard plenty of horror stories about students who are forced to sit in parking lots at liquor stores and fast-food restaurants just to access the Web.

“What we’ve seen with this pandemic, especially, is a big magnifying glass that has been put on this problem of unequal access,” she added in an interview.

The bill also sets aside an additional $6 billion to extend an affordability program authorized by Congress as part of a stimulus bill in December. That program is set to start paying up to $50 in monthly subsidies to families in financial need, marking a dramatic expansion of the country’s existing, troubled digital safety net program. Democrats’ new proposal essentially doubles the program’s pool of funds, meaning Americans will see additional months of aid before the program expires.

Other elements of the bill seek to improve digital literacy, help students obtain wireless hot spots and bring more transparency to Internet pricing, requiring the Federal Communications Commission to collect and make available more data on how much people are paying nationwide for Internet access. Its regulatory reforms aim to make it easier for broadband providers to navigate the digging process to lay their wires in the first place.

Democratic lawmakers led by Clyburn sought to advance similar investments as part of an infrastructure package they adopted last year. But the bill, which passed the House, ultimately faltered in the Senate, where Republicans who controlled the chamber never took up the measure.

A year later, the pandemic has brought political change, as it is now Democrats who control both sides of the Capitol as well as the White House — a fact that left lawmakers sponsoring the new bill bullish about their prospects.

“We have the gavel,” Klobuchar said. “We will find a way to get this done.”