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The information superhighway must be accessible and affordable for all


The older I get, the more I realize the less I know. So, per the usual, I had a history lesson not long ago from House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.). The subject matter this time was a topic familiar to many Americans: broadband access.

Now, being a child of the Information Age, I thought that I knew all there was to know about the wired world. But I didn’t understand how it was all connected. I knew that “information superhighway” or “infobahn” was a popular term used throughout the 1990s to refer to digital communication systems and the internet telecommunications network. What I didn’t know was that the term was coined by former vice president and U.S. senator Al Gore.   

You see, back in the mid-1960s, a number of scientists began working on a project called the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET). Funded by the Department of Defense, they built the digital infrastructure and protocols that allowed computers to talk to each other and be controlled remotely in order to network American defense systems with those of allied nations. 

It worked — and evolved over time, growing to include scientific networks and more. The possibilities seemed endless.

Enter Gore who, throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, helped fund and expand this growing digital infrastructure and, in 1991, wrote the High Performance Computing and Communication Act, which not only expanded and improved this network but opened it to public access.

I was born in 1985, so you might forgive me for not knowing all that history. But I do know that, today, access to broadband is essential to day-to-day living in this country. I know that if the coronavirus pandemic has done only one thing, it has exposed the simple fact that broadband access is like oxygen to the body we call America.

According to Pew Research Center, a majority of eighth-graders rely on the internet to do their homework. But, as with so many things, there’s a “homework gap” — school children whose homes don’t have the necessary internet connectivity — and it affects more Black, Hispanic and low-income families.

Here’s what else I know: 

  • Lower broadband speeds tend to translate into higher unemployment.
  • Lack of high-speed broadband is a major barrier to educating our children.
  • Nearly half of students who rely on cell phones for high-speed access fall behind on homework, compared to only 17 percent who have reliable high-speed access at home.
  • Broadband access is critical to small business success.
  • Internet connectivity even impacts what we think of as “low-tech” industries such as farming.

The simple fact is, we spend so much time talking about 3G versus 4G versus 5G … when we should be focusing on the countless Americans with no-G. That’s roughly 19 million Americans, or 6 percent of the population, according to the Federal Communications Commission, who lack access to high-speed fixed broadband service. So when I hear chatter about a major infrastructure plan that not only addresses roads, businesses and climate change but also puts real resources toward developing 5G communications and rural broadband, I get excited.

Just as we must improve our nation’s roads and bridges, we must repair, expand, build and invest in the information superhighway. If we want to compete globally in the 21st century, we must make high-speed internet not just accessible, but affordable for everyone in America.

The $3 trillion plan being prepared by President Biden’s economic advisers may not accomplish all of that in one shot, but it certainly is a good start.

Antjuan Seawright is a Democratic political strategist, founder and CEO of Blueprint Strategy LLC, a CBS News political contributor, and a senior visiting fellow at Third Way. Follow him on Twitter @antjuansea.

Tags Al Gore Broadband Homework gap Information superhighway Internet access Joe Biden Technology

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