Bridging the Digital Divide with National Broadband Policy

Nothing has shone a bright a light on the U.S. digital divide like the Coronavirus. The lack of broadband infrastructure and access for certain swaths of the population—particularly for rural and low-income communities—has risen to the fore once again.

Solutions have been slow if non-existent, and, perhaps worse, uncoordinated. We outlined the need for a concerted government response to the digital divide last fall in “Should There Be a Broadband New Deal?

New federal and legislative administrations face the same digital divide questions, but, thus far, don’t seem to have a much-improved answer as plans remain disorganized and disunited.

This past December, the advocacy group Information Technology Industry Council (ITI) released “How Digital Technology Can Empower the American Economic Recovery,” a cogent policy memo outlining an $80 billion infrastructure plan to bring high speed wired and wireless broadband to all Americans within five years. While the ITI memo elucidates needed action, the path forward by government continues to be unclear as new legislative and government organizational efforts appear to be disjointed.

Here is just a sprinkling of the latest, disparate federal digital divide solutions:

  • Last December’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act set aside $3.2 billion for a Congressional Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund (EBB), much of which remains unallocated.
  • The just-adopted American Rescue Plan (ARP) gives the FCC 60 days to set up an E-rate Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) of more than $7 billion to pay 100% of the costs for equipment and/or communications services for students, but only to libraries and schools, not homes.
  • ARP also includes a nearly $10 billion Homeowners Assistance Fund, which states can use for payment assistance of “qualified expenses” for primarily low-income households. Expenses can include “internet service, including broadband internet access service.”
  • On March 11, 2021, U.S. Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) re-introduced the $94 billion Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act (H.R. 1783), a revised version of a $100 billion bill originally unveiled last summer by Clyburn and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). This bill is designed to bring affordable high-speed internet access to unserved and underserved communities. Its fate is uncertain as it has no Republican co-sponsors and may spend considerable time making its way through House committees.
  • The USA Telecommunications Act (H.R. 6624), designed to expand rural 5G deployment, passed the House last November, is awaiting a hearing in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

This list doesn’t include local and state efforts, nor the Federal Communications Commission’s efforts to acquire additional funding for its Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) or re-define “broadband” from its currently antiquated 25/3 Mbps standard. Business initiatives, such as the rollout of 5G cellular networks and low-earth orbit (LEO) satellite internet services, are coming online but it’s unlikely that they will provide the low-cost access and infrastructure needed by underserved populations.

Disorganization

Any movement to address the myriad digital divide dilemmas is good movement, but the collective hodgepodge of attempts merely exacerbates the biggest problem: disorganization. Not only does the U.S. government lack a clearly stated national broadband policy, but it also any kind of unifying coordinating authority.

Theoretically, the scattered broadband legislation, agencies, task forces, funds, authorities, committees, et al., could be consolidated, or at least better coordinated, now that the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has been elevated to cabinet-level position, similar to how the Department of Homeland Security combined disparate governmental intelligence agencies. Except, at the moment, there doesn’t appear to be any clear outline for the responsibilities or powers of the elevated OSTP. Those responsibilities presumably won’t be clear until the OSTP director-nominee, Dr. Eric Lander, has been Senate-approved.

Once approved, COVID and climate change, more in line with Dr. Lander’s areas of expertise, appear to be the top OSTP priorities outlined in a public letter written by President Joe Biden to Lander. Since the letter disappointingly does not mention the word “broadband” and contains only a passing reference to “digital” and “communication,” the digital divide may not be high on Dr. Lander’s agenda.

Bottom line: Until there’s a national broadband policy administered by a unified and operating central authority, our ever-widening digital divide will remain unbridgeable. And, at the moment, neither appears to be on the horizon.