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Democrats push $94 billion broadband bill to end digital divide

Rep. James Clyburn and Sen. Amy Klobuchar reintroduce in the House and Senate the most ambitious legislation to date to get affordable, high-speed broadband to all Americans.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read
Marguerite Reardon/CNET

House and Senate Democrats are pushing new legislation introduced this week that would allocate $94 billion to make affordable broadband internet access available nationwide. The legislation is an effort to close the digital divide and bring digital equity to millions of Americans who've been left offline during the coronavirus pandemic this past year. 

The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, introduced Thursday in the House and Senate, has the backing of 30 Democratic lawmakers. Rep. James E. Clyburn, House Majority Whip, who represents a district in South Carolina, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota are the key lawmakers pushing the ambitious bill, which would be the most expensive broadband package introduced in recent years. The main goals of the legislation are to bring internet service to areas of the country where it doesn't yet exist, to improve network speeds in places where connectivity is too slow, and to ensure low-income families can afford service. 

Clyburn had introduced a similar bill in June 2020 just a few months after the COVID crisis had begun, but because Republicans controlled Congress the legislation had no hope of passing. 

Locating local internet providers

The digital divide is a problem that's dogged policy makers for decades. In spite of billions of dollars spent by the federal government each year to get more Americans throughout the US connected, there are still at least 19 million Americans who don't have access to broadband, according to the Federal Communications Commission. That number is likely an underestimate, the FCC admits, given that the maps the government uses to determine who has service and who doesn't are grossly inaccurate

Though policy makers for years have talked about the problem, the issue has taken on a new urgency over the past year as the pandemic and resulting lockdown provide a stark reminder that having adequate broadband is no longer a luxury. As schools and offices across the US have shut down, the internet has become as necessary to day-to-day life as electricity and running water. 

Locating local internet providers

With Democrats' slight majority in the House and Senate, as well as control of the White House, they see an opportunity to move legislation with a hefty price tag that they hope will solve the problem for good. The bill is likely to be part of a larger debate Congress will soon be having over President Joe Biden's promised $2 trillion infrastructure plan, which is the next big agenda item on the president's list of priorities now that the $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus package has been signed into law.

Democrats say now's the time to make big changes, especially when it comes to getting broadband infrastructure set up in rural communities where it simply doesn't exist. 

"Access to broadband today will have the same dramatic impact on rural communities as the rural electrification efforts in the last century," Clyburn said. Clyburn, who in 2019 formed the Rural Broadband Task Force in the House of Representatives to address the digital divide, added that "the disparate effects of that divide have been amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic and exposed the urgency of ensuring universal access to high-speed internet."

While this legislation is the most ambitious in terms of scope and cost to be introduced, Congress has already been allocating funds to address the digital divide since the pandemic began a year ago. A half a dozen states used federal funding from the CARES Act passed last spring to help fund broadband infrastructure projects. Mississippi was one such state, allocating $65 million of its CARES Act funding to grants for electric co-ops, which used the money to accelerate the build-out of gigabit speed broadband service on fiber optic infrastructure. 

Funds allocated by Congress in the December COVID relief bill are now being used to provide a $50 a month subsidy to low-income individuals to pay for broadband service. More money for broadband is coming from the latest COVID relief legislation signed into law earlier this week. 

Klobuchar, who serves as co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus and who introduced the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act in the Senate, said that investing in broadband infrastructure is an investment in opportunity for all Americans. 

"In 2021, we should be able to bring high-speed internet to every family in America -- regardless of their ZIP code," she said. "This legislation will help bridge the digital divide once and for all."