How to bridge the digital divide without widening partisan divides

How to bridge the digital divide without widening partisan divides
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Joe Biden’s pledge to be a president for all Americans — not just those who voted for him — is already being tested by the harsh reality of the hyper-partisan Washington outrage machine. Biden and his team will have to work overtime to find policy issues offering enough common ground to garner 60 votes in the Senate.

Getting every American connected to broadband — an issue that cuts across “Red-Blue” and urban-rural fault lines — would be a good place to start repairing the breach.

Republicans know infrastructure deployment gaps are found primarily in rural, as well as tribal areas. Democrats understand broadband adoption rates are lowest among low-income households and in communities of color. And common sense, pro-consumer open internet protections and privacy safeguards enjoy strong bipartisan support — so long as they’re not weighed down with poison pills and unrelated add-ons.

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Taken together, these priorities offer ripe ground for bipartisan compromise and meaningful progress. Universal broadband connectivity is an attainable goal — if the administration can resist pressure to go down the dead-end paths of government micromanagement and instead stay focused on targeted spending, smart reforms, and public-private partnerships.

Rural broadband gaps, for example, are a vexing challenge that will only be solved by marrying private infrastructure capital with targeted public spending. While nearly $2 trillion in private investment over the past 25 years have built networks that reach 96 percent of American communities, market forces alone won’t attract the private investment needed to get last-mile network infrastructure to every home in remote unserved pockets.

Joe Biden’s commitment to invest $20 billion in rural broadband represents a vitally important down payment on closing these remaining gaps. Spent wisely, this public spending will leverage even greater private investment by encouraging all capable providers to bid for project support on a transparent, competitive basis.

Meanwhile, smart safeguards to ensure we’re prioritizing truly unserved areas can help avoid the mis-steps of earlier federal broadband initiatives, which squandered millions building duplicative broadband networks in communities that already had high-speed network infrastructure.

Similarly, the Biden administration can stretch these tax dollars even further by getting rid of outdated, dial-up era eligibility rules that actively discourage many capable providers from participating. Some ideologues want to impose government command-and-control regulations — for instance, unneeded symmetrical upstream and downstream speed mandates — but we should instead remain laser-focused on promoting break-neck competition among all providers and all broadband technologies (fiber, cable, fixed wireless, etc.) so that the cream rises to the top. This combination of public funding, private investment, and smart reforms should form the backbone of a bipartisan plan to make broadband available to every American home. 

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While broadband service is available in 96 percent of U.S. neighborhoods, only 73 percent of American households actually elect to get it. This “adoption gap” is exacerbated by digital literacy gaps, economic pressures, and our failure to convince many non-adopters that the internet can open doors for them. In fact, 60 percent of Americans without home broadband cite a lack of interest or need as their main reason for not subscribing.

We need better ideas on how to crack this complex, overlapping set of challenges. The Biden administration should embrace Sen. Ed Markey’s (D-Mass.) legislation authorizing new experiments and pilot programs and gathering more data on the barriers to broadband adoption.

In the meantime, let’s build on what works. Most major broadband providers have offered low-cost broadband programs for years to eligible low-income customers, connecting millions of families for $10-$20 per month. During the pandemic, public-private partnerships between providers and school districts further built on these proven models to help get underprivileged students connected at home.

Modernizing low-income FCC programs like Lifeline for the broadband age — and opening these programs up to every capable provider — would further help vulnerable families.

Congress included a $3 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit in the COVID-19 relief package passed in December (with overwhelming bipartisan support), offering a subsidy of up to $50 per month to help low-income and unemployed Americans stay connected during this pandemic.

This is a welcome short-term solution, but broadband adoption challenges will persist long after the COVID-19 emergency. Congress needs to get to work defining — and funding — a long-term solution that builds on the innovative EBB model.

By bringing broadband to rural and urban areas and melding federal funding, private investment and strict accountability, President BidenJoe BidenOvernight Defense: Senate panel adds B to Biden's defense budget | House passes bill to streamline visa process for Afghans who helped US | Pentagon confirms 7 Colombians arrested in Haiti leader's killing had US training On The Money: Senate braces for nasty debt ceiling fight | Democrats pushing for changes to bipartisan deal | Housing prices hit new high in June Hillicon Valley: Democrats introduce bill to hold platforms accountable for misinformation during health crises | Website outages hit Olympics, Amazon and major banks MORE can bridge the digital divide without worsening partisan divides.

Lindsay Lewis is executive director of the Progressive Policy Institute.