Senators introducing $40B bill to help narrow digital divide

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Legislation that would provide $40 billion to expand broadband access is expected to be introduced Tuesday in what will likely be one of the largest bipartisan proposals aimed at addressing the digital divide, The Washington Post reported.

The bill — the Broadband Reform and Investment to Drive Growth in the Economy Act, or Bridge Act — is being co-sponsored by Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Angus King (I-Maine). The senators cited the COVID-19 pandemic as a major reason for needing to expand broadband access.

Bennet predicted that demand for easier access would continue to grow after the pandemic is over as hybrid work and school environments become more common.

“I think it’s very exciting as long as everyone in the country has access to broadband,” Bennet told the Post. “If they don’t, we’re going to see the digital divide creating a greater divide than what already exists between kids living in poverty and more affluent kids.”

“Too many rural and low-income communities in Ohio and across the U.S. lack affordable and reliable access to broadband. In a time when more and more people communicate, learn, and work over the internet, it has never been more important to ensure every community has quality access to broadband,” Portman said in a press release.

The senators said they want to ensure greater market competition with their bill by providing consumers with more options and possibly lowering internet prices, lifting bans on municipal broadband networks and allowing new companies to compete against large service providers.

The bill would also require broadband providers to offer at least one affordable option for low-income families.

Many Americans in largely rural areas lack access to broadband internet or can’t afford it. The digital divide has only become more evident due to the COVID-19 pandemic as schools and jobs moved online, disproportionately affecting lower-income students and workers that don’t have easy broadband access at home.

King made note of this inequity, saying “far too many of our citizens” had been excluded from the opportunities provided by the internet during the pandemic.

The bill would prioritize the creation of “future proof” networks, enacting requirements for networks to have upload and download speeds of at least 100 Mbps, according to the Post.

However, the $40 billion price tag would be significantly less than what both President Biden and bipartisan lawmakers have proposed in separate infrastructure plans. The $1.25 trillion proposal unveiled by House moderates earlier this month would provide $45 billion for broadband, while Biden’s plan would provide $100 billion.

“The American Rescue Plan included a historic down payment on broadband infrastructure to confront this challenge, but a larger investment is needed to ensure that no Americans are left behind in our increasingly-digital society,” King said.

Bennet told the newspaper that the $40 billion should be one part of the funding that is dedicated to infrastructure talks. The Colorado senator first introduced the Bridge Act in 2020, though at the time it was a $30 billion proposal. The increased amount, he said, is meant to offer assistance to families in urban areas.

—Updated at 1:25 p.m.

Tags Angus King Broadband Digital divide Digital divide in the United States Information and communications technology Internet access Joe Biden Michael Bennet Municipal broadband Rob Portman Technology

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