When I was superintendent of the Denver Public Schools, I always looked forward to the first day of class — the students lining up outside the school’s double doors, sporting new haircuts and backpacks, all ready to build a bright future. This year, students, parents, teachers, and school leaders face very different circumstances amidst the coronavirus pandemic. And over the past few weeks, millions of kids couldn’t begin learning at all because they do not have access to affordable, high-speed internet.
In Colorado, 65,000 students don’t have access to the internet at home. Nationwide, 17 million students don’t have access to high-speed broadband, including one in three Black, Latino, and Native households. Worse, even families with broadband often struggle with slow connections that can’t handle multiple users or modern applications like videoconferencing.
As a country, we have failed to invest in modern infrastructure, especially in rural communities. Now, our children are paying the price. Families are camping out in Walmart parking lots to help their kids access free Wi-Fi hotspots. Teachers are hand-delivering homework packets to students who can’t participate in Zoom classes. Students are squinting through assignments on their mobile phones, trying not to use up their family’s monthly data plan. Parents — like a mother I heard from in La Junta, Colo., in August — are spending hundreds of dollars a month to pay for those plans to keep their kids connected.
This is not only a moral failure, but a self-inflicted wound on our future. Ask any mayor from a small town or rural area, and they will tell you that high-speed broadband can be the difference between new residents and businesses coming or going — between economic growth or decline. Ask any teacher, and they will tell you the cost of missed school is more than dollars and cents: It’s the third grader who falls behind in reading and may never catch up; the middle-schooler who misses the science experiment that would have sparked a lifelong passion; or the high school junior who drops out and diminishes their prospects for finding a good-paying job. America will reap this whirlwind for a generation.
This outcome was not inevitable. For years, people across Colorado have told me that broadband prices are too high, speeds are too slow, and choices are too few. In Washington, the drumbeat of press releases about “closing the digital divide” continues, but out in the country, nothing seems to change. Given the slow and uneven deployment of broadband, networks in rural America supported by federal investments are often outdated as soon as they are finished, requiring new taxpayer subsidies every few years to bring them up to speed.
To make matters worse, some communities are prohibited from building their own broadband networks to give residents a real choice. Through it all, Washington continues to make policy based on outdated maps that grossly overestimate broadband access in America. The Federal Communications Commission claims that 18 million Americans lack access to broadband, but other studies suggest the real number is closer to 42 million.
It is long past time for a new approach. That is why, this summer, I introduced the BRIDGE Act to put our communities — not Washington — in the driver’s seat about where and how to invest in high-speed internet. Our bill provides $30 billion to states and $1 billion to tribal governments to deploy affordable, high-speed broadband to connect areas with little or no service, including unserved neighborhoods, schools, libraries, and community centers. To ensure this taxpayer investment benefits everyone, our bill also requires new networks to include an affordable option for low-income families.
Instead of paying for incremental upgrades every few years, our bill requires new networks to offer “future proof” speeds of at least 100/100 Mbps — while incenting even faster, gigabit service — that can handle modern demands and serve communities’ needs for years to come. The legislation empowers communities to invest in their own broadband networks, in partnership with the private sector if they wish. Finally, it accelerates an overhaul of Washington’s broken broadband maps to ensure we target funding where it’s most needed.
All of this reflects common-sense ideas Coloradans have shared with me for years. Even in the face of this global pandemic, students stand ready to do their jobs and build a future in this country. It’s time we did ours by connecting every family to affordable, high-speed broadband.
Bennet is the senior senator from Colorado.