Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said Thursday that they are introducing legislation to spend $1.4 billion over five years for local internet projects, in addition to money for broadband expansion that may be included in an upcoming infrastructure bill.
Their bill, dubbed the Digital Equity Act, would pay for projects to make the internet more accessible, such as school-based hotspots and computer training for seniors. It would provide grants to states, localities and community groups.
The money would represent a small down payment on the billions of dollars the U.S. would need to spend to close the technological divide between people with a fast broadband connection and those without one.
The proposal comes at what may be an opportune time, as senators are deep in messy negotiations over a potential infrastructure package that's a top priority for President Joe Biden. He proposed $100 billion in broadband spending, and Republicans countered last month with a $65 billion plan.
Murray and Portman plan to push for their legislation to be included in whatever infrastructure bill may emerge, Murray's office said.
The legislation reflects bipartisan desire to begin investing more, especially after the coronavirus pandemic highlighted many Americans' poor internet choices.
"While we've made some headway expanding internet access to more families by investing in critical infrastructure like rural broadband, that isn't much help if they don't have the tools and skills to actually use their broadband connection," Murray said in a statement.
To be eligible for grant money, a state would need to write a plan for addressing digital inequality. Nonprofits, community groups and private sector entities acting in the public interest could apply for grant funding, too.
Murray introduced similar legislation in 2019 without Republicans signing on. This time, Portman's support makes it bipartisan, an important factor in the 50-50 divided Senate.
"Too many Americans — especially in overlooked and underserved communities — lack access to broadband internet, negatively impacting the way they live and work," Portman said in a statement.
Software giant Microsoft said it was throwing its support behind the bill, joining with advocacy groups such as the AARP and the National League of Cities. Brad Smith, Microsoft's president, said in a statement that the legislation would "address the digital divide, promote competitiveness and ensure all Americans can thrive in the new economy."