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Why large swaths of ‘digital deserts’ are counting on an infrastructure deal

“Access to broadband today will have the same dramatic impact on communities as the electrification efforts in the last century,” Rep. James Clyburn said.
Fourth-grader Sammiayah Thompson, left, and her brother, third-grader Nehemiah Thompson, work outside in their yard on laptops provided by their school system for distant learning in Hartford, Conn., on June 5, 2020.
Fourth grader Sammiayah Thompson, left, and her brother, third grader Nehemiah Thompson, work in their yard on laptops provided by their school system for distant learning in Hartford, Conn., on June 5, 2020.Jessica Hill / AP file

For years, Rep. James Clyburn has pushed and sponsored legislation to make high-speed internet accessible and affordable nationwide. 

Now, as the House prepares to vote Thursday on the bipartisan infrastructure deal, the South Carolina Democrat said he hopes for a watershed moment.

The sweeping Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act is a key component of the Biden-Harris administration’s domestic agenda. If passed, the $1.2 trillion package would make investments in transit, rail, ports, airports, water, roads, the environment and more. Its provisions include $65 billion in new funding for broadband infrastructure and affordability assistance, with equitable investments targeting populations that need it most. 

“Access to broadband today will have the same dramatic impact on communities as the electrification efforts in the last century,” Clyburn said. “The disparate effects of the digital divide have been amplified during the Covid-19 pandemic and exposed the urgency of ensuring universal access to high-speed internet,” he added. “Now is the time to act.”

While the share of households with a broadband connection has been increasing, according to the Federal Communications Commission, millions of households across America — disproportionately in communities of color, rural areas and low-income households — lack reliable and affordable connectivity. Pew Research Center data shows that 80 percent of white adults in the U.S. say they have a broadband connection. Among Black and Hispanic respondents, it was 71 percent and 65 percent, respectively.

Large swaths of rural and urban America are “digital deserts” where high-speed internet access is unavailable at any price. In many other communities, service is often unreliable, unaffordable or too slow. 

These factors can contribute to inequality. The American Civil Liberties Union noted that adults in communities of color who lack broadband face significant barriers in accessing employment, education and life necessities. Children are affected, since internet access at home is tied to completing homework and earning better grades. 

Moreover, no broadband can mean inadequate digital skills for the job market. More than half of Black and Latino people could be underprepared for most jobs by 2045, according to a 2020 Deutsche Bank report

Clyburn has sought to tackle such issues in his district and nationwide. Clyburn's office said nearly half a million South Carolinians lack access to an internet connection.

It’s one of the reasons why Clyburn founded and chairs the House Rural Broadband Task Force, composed of more than two dozen Democrats working to close the digital divide. Clyburn and like-minded colleagues have introduced legislation and continue to examine ways to promote high-speed internet accessibility, affordability and adoption. 

In a speech on the House floor on Tuesday, Clyburn referenced the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, which passed the House in 2020 as part of the Moving Forward Act. It would have authorized $94 billion to provide universal access to affordable high-speed internet for people across the country.

While the bipartisan infrastructure package does not include that bill in its entirety, it does incorporate several of its policy principles. They include: prioritization for impoverished communities; language to make sure local governments have a seat at the table; robust oversight and accountability for funding recipients; a requirement for an affordable option to be offered on the newly funded networks; and funding for digital equity and inclusion. 

At stake are resources to help millions more people work remotely, learn virtually, receive telehealth care and stay in touch with family and friends. 

“Far too many Americans are left out,” said Clyburn, who noted that in the nation’s history, “communities in most need of federal funds have all too often been last in line.”

The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank focused on policy benefitting Black Americans, found that among Southern rural counties with significant Black populations, approximately 38 percent of Black Americans reported that they lack internet access. 

"This is much higher than rates reported by other groups — including whites in the Black rural South, rural residents outside of the South and African Americans nationwide," said Dominique Harrison, Joint Center’s director of technology policy and author of the report, "Expanding Broadband in the Black Rural South." "The lack of broadband in the Black rural South is driven by both the lack of affordability and availability of broadband services."

The Joint Center plans to release a full report later this fall that summarizes the research and analysis and outlines solutions. Meanwhile, Harrison said she is keeping an eye on Capitol Hill developments around the issue. 

“I think there are a lot of great provisions in the infrastructure bill focused on broadband deployment, affordability and adoption,” she said. “I believe that these investments will move us closer in closing the digital divide for Black Americans in metropolitan and rural areas.”

In May, Francella Ochillo, the executive director of Next Century Cities, a nonprofit organization that works to ensure reliable internet access to all, testified before a congressional subcommittee on broadband access and disparities.

Dave Wallace, an employee of Silica Broadband, pulls fiber to install internet service in Louisville, Ky., on April 19.Amira Karaoud / Reuters file

“Broadband equity is a living, breathing element of deployment and adoption strategies,” she said. “It helps to ensure that digital infrastructure reaches every household and business, beyond areas that are profitable to serve, and recognizes that some communities face systemic barriers that require thoughtful policy interventions. Centering equity also gives communities ownership in building the digital frameworks that support a more educated, prosperous and equal society.”

Universal broadband access, Ochillo said, is the goal.

“Affordability, digital literacy and access to devices are equally problematic and can no longer be treated as an afterthought in federal policy,” she added. “Now is the time for us to ask hard questions about who is being left behind.”

The billions proposed for broadband access in the infrastructure package would be “a game changer,” for Black communities, said Don Graves, the Biden administration’s deputy secretary of commerce. “It will have a massive transformational impact.”

He cited expanded job growth, distribution of resources and other measures to enhance equitable economic growth, empowering entrepreneurs to innovate and grow, and helping American workers and businesses better compete at home and in the global marketplace. 

The bill’s funding would not only help connect hard-to-reach rural and urban communities to high-speed internet, but it also has provisions to assist those who lack the resources to pay for internet service.

“There are incentives to get access to devices — computers, phones, tablets,” Graves said. 

Ochillo envisions a future where broadband connection will enable communities to fully participate in the economy; obtain education and health services; train, search and apply for a job; and overall participate in society. 

“Together,” she said, “we can develop a nationwide strategy that provides every resident — regardless of income or geography — with a fair chance to benefit from high-speed connectivity and contribute to a digital society.”

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