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Digital divide fix gets a boost as Biden signs $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill

The new law includes $65 billion for broadband, which will expand internet access to more Americans and could help close the digital divide.

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President Joe Biden signs the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act as he is surrounded by lawmakers and members of his Cabinet during a ceremony on the South Lawn at the White House on Nov. 15, 2021, in Washington, DC. The $1.2 trillion packages will provide funds for public infrastructure projects including improvements to the country's transportation networks, increasing rural broadband access, and projects to modernize water and energy systems. 

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This story is part of Crossing the Broadband Divide, CNET's coverage of how the country is working toward making broadband access universal.

President Joe Biden on Monday signed the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill into law, paving the way for much-needed funding for everything from roads and bridges to expanding ports and airport capacity to upgrading electrical grids. A small but important sliver of the infrastructure bill could also be a salve to the digital divide. 

The signing of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act marks a major legislative victory for Biden after months of heated negotiation among Democrats. The House of Representatives passed the massive spending package earlier this month in a vote of 228-206 that largely fell along party lines. The Senate passed the bill, which will deliver $550 billion in new federal spending, in a 69 to 30 vote in August.  

In a rare moment of bipartisanship, some Republicans and most Democrats, who supported the legislation, gathered at the White House for the bill's signing. Not all of the Republicans who voted for the popular legislation were in attendance. This group of lawmakers has faced criticism, and in some cases, death threats, for supporting the infrastructure package. Former President Donald Trump has called Republicans supporting the legislation sell-outs and has encouraged primary fights to oust those who supported the historic package in the upcoming mid-term elections.

Before signing the bill, Biden noted that the spending measure was a long time coming as Trump had repeatedly promised but failed to deliver an infrastructure package. 

"Here in Washington, we've heard countless speeches, promises and white papers from experts. But today, we're finally getting this done," Biden said. "And my message to the American people is: America is moving again. And your life is going to change for the better."

The legislation nearly fell apart as Democrats fought amongst themselves for more than a month, as progressives used the bipartisan infrastructure bill as leverage to gain support from moderate Democrats for the larger Build Back Better Act, which is expected to focus on social spending programs like universal pre-k, paid leave, and money for affordable child care and housing. 

On one side of the debate were progressives in the House, led by Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington, who'd been threatening to sink the legislation if the much larger "human infrastructure" bill wasn't passed via budget reconciliation in the Senate in conjunction with the traditional infrastructure legislation. On the other side were two moderate Senate Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who had repeatedly said the $3.5 trillion price tag was too hefty. 

Progressive Democrats finally agreed to vote for the infrastructure bill after moderate Democrats assured them they'd vote for the larger Build Back Better Act, which focuses on social spending. 

Meanwhile, the impasse had left in limbo the fate of the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which included $65 billion in federal funding for broadband investment. 

Broadband experts had been bracing themselves for the worst, fearing that a stalemate that resulted in the House not voting on the bipartisan infrastructure bill would fritter away a once-in-a-generation opportunity to finally close the digital divide, an issue that's dogged policy makers for decades.

"I think we get one shot at this," Mark Buell, regional vice president, North America, of the Internet Society, said in September.

Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Colorado, who has been pushing for greater investment in affordable high-speed broadband, said the funding will have a significant effect on broadband throughout the country. 

"We are on the cusp of making the largest ever investment in affordable, high-speed broadband in US history," he said in a statement. "This new funding says that we don't have to accept a country where any American is shut out of the broadband access they need to compete and thrive in the 21st century."

The opportunity of a lifetime

The bipartisan infrastructure bill includes a commitment of $42 billion to deploy broadband where it doesn't yet exist. Where broadband is available, it promises another $14.2 billion to create a permanent $30-a-month-subsidy program to help low-income Americans afford service. The bill offers an additional $2.75 billion for digital equity and inclusion efforts, which could end digital redlining, the practice of internet service providers avoiding lower-income areas -- typically neighborhoods with large populations of people of color -- where they don't think they'll make money. 

For the first time in more than two decades, policymakers see a real chance to make a difference.

"Out of crisis is opportunity," FCC acting chair Jessica Rosenworcel said in an interview with CNET in September. "With this crisis, we've ended the days where we talk about broadband as a 'nice-to-have.' Policymakers everywhere now understand it's a 'need-to-have' for everyone across this country." 

In 2010, the Obama administration's National Broadband Plan presented a guide for developing policy to crack the problem. But the report, published well after Congress had allocated stimulus money in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, didn't spur concerted action, said Blair Levin, now a Wall Street analyst but earlier a Federal Communications Commission official during the Clinton administration and the lead author of the National Broadband Plan. 

"Ten years ago, when we wrote the National Broadband Plan, we articulated many of the same things people are citing now," he said. "But it wasn't a priority. There wasn't a lot of political capital. There also wasn't any money left to tackle these issues."

In 2017, the FCC estimated that it would cost $40 billion to deploy fiber networks to 98% of households. The agency said in 2021 that it's made some progress in ensuring more Americans are connected to broadband. From 2018 to 2019, the FCC said the number of Americans lacking at least a 25 megabit per second broadband connection dropped more than 20%, to 14.5 million Americans. 

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Those left behind without access to reliable, affordable broadband are disproportionately people in communities of color, rural areas and low-income households. Pew Research Center data shows that 80% of white adults in the US report they have a broadband connection, while 71% of Black respondents say they have access to broadband and only 65% of Hispanics report having broadband. 

In large rural areas, high-speed internet access is simply nonexistent. In many other communities, service is often unreliable, unaffordable or too slow. 

The COVID-19 pandemic made it clear that Americans need broadband to do everything from go to work to attend school to access health care. Congress committed billions in federal COVID relief dollars to provide subsidies to millions of Americans to keep them online.

Levin said the worldwide shutdown due to COVID is the driving force behind more investment to close the digital divide.  

"COVID-19 was a better evangelist for why we need to solve this problem than I could ever be," he said. "COVID taught lots of government officials why you need every school kid to have broadband in their homes and why rural areas need it for health care. There's true bipartisan support now."

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