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How the infrastructure bill can help close the digital divide

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Even as the negotiations between President Biden and Sen. Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) ended with no deal and the focus now turns to a group of bipartisan rank-and-file members in both Senate and the House, there is one aspect of infrastructure that still continues to enjoy broad support — and it also happens to be the most important part of the plan: $100 billion in broadband infrastructure.

This much-needed investment would ensure every single American has access to affordable, reliable high-speed broadband. For the sake of our country’s economic well-being, leaders in Washington must come to an agreement that makes broadband expansion a top priority. Doing so will change millions of lives for the better.

As it relates to traditional infrastructure, expanding broadband access may seem like secondary to funding improvements for roads, bridges, and highways. But as the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear, broadband is essential for nearly every aspect of daily life — from going to school to buying basic necessities. Most jobs today require an internet connection. Our economy simply cannot run without it.

But we are lagging behind other countries when it comes to internet access. Around 23 percent of Americans lack a high-speed internet connection. Among the Organizational for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, a club of developed nations, the United States ranks 15 out of 37 in fixed broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants. It trails the likes of Switzerland, France, Germany, Canada, and the United Kingdom, among others.

And even if Americans do have broadband lines in their areas, the connection may be spotty or non-existent. According to a Wall Street Journal analysis, poorer neighborhoods, including those in cities, have internet speeds 40 percent slower than those in high-income neighborhoods. In rural counties, 65 percent of households connect to the internet, compared to 78 percent of households nationwide, according to the Census Bureau.

Americans of all ages miss out on opportunities when they don’t have adequate broadband connections.

Even before schools closed for in-person instruction, a third of K-12 students didn’t have a strong internet connection, a digital device, or both. Today’s K-12 education relies on online tools, like Google Docs or Canvas, for everything from homework assignments to tests. Without internet, many students cannot complete basic assignments.

And they are missing out on important skills needed in the modern workforce. Between 2002 and 2016, the need for digital skills increased by 95 percent for workers in all occupations and cities. Today, 70 percent say they can’t do their job without an internet connection at home. Experts speaking at the World Economic Forum last year estimated that by 2030, nine in ten jobs will need digital skills.

Universal broadband would help close the digital divide between rich and poor Americans while keeping America competitive in the global economy.

For example, broadband investment will help the many Americans employed in the agricultural sector. As of 2019, a quarter of farmers did not have access to the internet — even though up-to-date information about the weather, the economy, and USDA reports is vital to a farm’s success. According to a report from the Breakthrough Institute, expanding rural broadband would allow farmers to adopt new technologies that could lead to a 60 to 70 percent increase in corn yields and generate up to $65 billion in economic revenue annually.

A new Brookings Institution report further underscore the benefits of expanded broadband. It concludes that increased internet usage is “associated with higher incomes, lower poverty rates, and higher levels of education.”

That is not surprising. After all, reliable internet grants workers access to thousands of job postings, educational resources, and other networking opportunities. It provides business owners working from home with a gateway into e-commerce, which accounts for 14 percent of national retail sales. And it allows high school students to study for exams, connect with mentors, and apply to colleges.

None of that can happen without investment into new broadband infrastructure. As Democrats and Republicans continue to work toward a bipartisan deal on infrastructure, they need to make sure that they close the digital divide and ensure all Americans can participate and thrive in the 21st century economy.

They must embrace this opportunity today.

Kip Eideberg is the Senior Vice President of Government and Industry Relations at the Association of Equipment Manufacturers.

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