Calling it one of the best hopes for rural America and broadband access, experts in digital connectivity are hailing the recent passage of the more than $1 trillion infrastructure bill.
The bill, which President Joe Biden is expected to sign into law on Monday, November 15, allocates $65 billion to improve high-speed internet access and affordability. This includes $2 billion each for a rural broadband construction program called ReConnect, which Rural Utilities Service at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) will operate, and to the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program run by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).
Another $600 million is earmarked for private activity bonds to finance broadband deployment projects in rural areas and $14.2 billion for $30-a-month vouchers to low-income Americans to pay for internet service.
“It would not be inaccurate to call this the most significant piece of infrastructure spending in the broadband space in American history,” Tyler Cooper, editor-in-chief for BroadbandNow, a consumer information service, said in an email interview with The Daily Yonder. “Though the total amount is reduced from the original $100 billion allocated, and the promising language about prioritizing community broadband efforts has been removed, this still represents one of the best hopes rural Americans have for improving their broadband situation.”
According to the 2019 U.S. Census, 36 million households do not subscribe to a wireline broadband service, including 10 million in rural areas. The lower a household’s income, the less likely they are to consistently subscribe to a wireline broadband service.
Amy Huffman, policy director at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, called the bill “a landmark piece of legislation.”
“It really is a game-changer,” she added.
However, she said, it is a space that has not been invested in adequately, so there is going to be a need to continue to invest.
“I think we have to be extremely happy and celebratory about this funding, and what it means for all Americans, but also recognize … there’s going to be a need for more investment in the future,” she said.
Huffman said she is particularly excited about the Digital Equity Act, which will help create programs at the state and local level. These programs may include providing digital literacy and digital skills education to low-income populations or improving the online accessibility of social services for individuals with disabilities.She added that based on anecdotal evidence, urban areas tend to have more resources for digital inclusion programs.
“A library system in a city, not always, but most of the time, has more staff, has more funding to do digital literacy classes, whereas some of the rural libraries do not, right?” she said. “They have one or two people or they have to close up when they don’t have a staff member who’s there.”
Greg Guice with Public Knowledge, a communication-rights advocacy nonprofit, called the legislation a “momentous step to help with closing the digital divide. ” Guice noted that the bill requires internet service providers to create a lower-cost tier of service and prevents ISPs from redlining low-income communities.
Guice said he was concerned that the legislation reduces the internet subsidy for low-income families from $50 to $30 and said the package still needs to find a way to help low-income households pay for equipment like modems.
But he applauded the bill’s digital equity initiatives.
“This is a big investment in closing the digital divide that will connect millions of families, and while more will need to be done to fully close it, this is a truly great effort, ” Guice said.
Tim Marema contributed reporting to this article.