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President Biden taps Kamala Harris to lead effort to close digital divide

The vice president will lead Biden's effort to connect every American to broadband, signaling the issue as a major priority for the White House.

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Vice President Kamala Harris listens as President Joe Biden speaks during a joint session of Congress at the US Capitol on April 21, 2021, where Biden announced he was putting her in charge of leading efforts to close the digital divide.  

Jim Watson/Getty Images

President Joe Biden has put Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of his initiative to close the digital divide, signaling his seriousness about ensuring every American has access to affordable, high-speed internet. 

During his first address to a joint session of Congress, Biden said Wednesday that the vice president would lead his effort to expand the availability of broadband nationwide. Biden's plan includes making broadband more affordable for millions of low-income Americans. 

"It's going to help our kids and business succeed in the 21st century economy," Biden said. "And I'm asking the vice president to lead this effort, if she would, because I know it will get done."

Biden's choice to put Harris in charge is a sign the White House sees broadband as a top priority. It "shows that the president considers closing the digital divide of utmost importance," said Gigi Sohn, a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology & Policy and former advisor to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler. 

Biden's plan calls for spending $100 billion to expand broadband in rural communities where access doesn't yet exist and to help make broadband more affordable across the country. Though the proposed spending makes up only a tiny fraction of the overall $2 trillion in spending Biden wants to see Congress allocate for his infrastructure plan, the policy and political ambitions around the issue are huge.

"Broadband is going to be a critical part of our infrastructure of the future," said New Street Research analyst Blair Levin, who led the effort to create President Barack Obama's 2010 National Broadband Plan. Levin explained that aside from the obvious benefits of broadband for education, health care and job training, it'll also be transformative for what we think of as traditional infrastructure, like bridges, roads and mass transit, which will all be equipped with internet-connected sensors and other "smart" technology. 

"To the public, broadband represents the infrastructure of the future, more so than an improved road does," Levin said.

Closing the digital divide

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 connected, there are still at least 19 million Americans who don't have access to broadband, according to the FCC. That number is likely an underestimate, the agency 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 provided 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. 

Many experts also point out that closing the digital divide isn't just about getting broadband access to rural communities that lack it. It's also about digital equity and making sure communities that've historically been redlined and left out of high-speed access get it. It also means ensuring that broadband service is affordable for all Americans, regardless of whether they live in rural parts of the country or urban or suburban areas. 

During his campaign, Biden said he'd expand broadband to every American. Biden's campaign promised $20 billion for rural broadband infrastructure for both wired and wireless networks to help bring internet access to areas where it simply doesn't exist now. It also promised to include help for local municipalities seeking to build their own broadband networks.

Congress has already been allocating funds to address the digital divide since the pandemic began more than a year ago. A half 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 was allocated as part of the COVID relief legislation signed into law by Biden in March

Harris' experience as attorney general of California, and her time serving as a US senator from the same state, could make her an effective steward of this issue, Levin said. Her work on privacy issues, as well as her connections to influential people in the tech sector could be beneficial to developing policy. 

"Whether we're talking about how to connect rural America or how to make sure that broadband is affordable to low income people in rural America and in cities, she has had a combination of experiences in California that can be really useful in pulling together the right policies and the right politics to make closing the digital divide happen," Levin said.