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Senate passes $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package

In addition to upgrading roads, bridges and public works projects, the package is expected to improve broadband internet speeds and get infrastructure to more Americans.

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The Senate voted Tuesday to pass a $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package, ending weeks of negotiations between Democrats and Republicans over the largest federal investment in traditional infrastructure the US has seen in decades. 

The vote on the bill was 69-30. The legislation now must be passed by the House. 

The rare bipartisan support for the legislation reflects its popularity and eagerness from senators to deliver tangible results for voters back home. The package, which promises to pour billions of dollars into upgrading roads, bridges, water pipes and other public works projects, is also expected to improve broadband internet speeds and get infrastructure to more Americans. 

Now that voting on the bill is complete, senators are immediately turning to a budget outline for a $3.5 trillion package that'll include funding for things like child care, elder care and other programs. This spending bill is much more partisan and if passed will almost certainly see the vote fall along party lines.  

President Joe Biden said over the weekend that the bipartisan infrastructure package the senate just passed offers an investment similar to spending levels on the transcontinental railroad or the interstate highway system.

Senators have spent the past week working on nearly two dozen amendments to the 2,700-page bill. But none of the amendments offered any substantial change to the framework of the legislation. 

In addition to funding projects for traditional infrastructure, such as bridges, roads and public transit, the bill calls for funding of electric vehicle charging stations and high-speed broadband. Specifically, there'll be a $65 billion "investment ensuring every American has access to reliable high-speed internet," according to the White House. (This figure has been scaled back from Biden's original proposal of $100 billion in broadband spending.) 

The investment in broadband comes as policymakers acknowledge that high-speed internet access has become as vital to American life as electricity. The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns over the past year have shown how important broadband is to ensure that Americans can, when needed, remotely take care of things like schooling, medical consultations and work (depending on the job). 

As many as 30 million Americans live in areas where there's no broadband infrastructure to provide minimally acceptable speeds, according to the White House. It's a problem known as the digital divide, and it's dogged policy makers for years.

Biden took to Twitter to celebrate the Senate's passage of the bill, saying the legislation "will grow the economy, create good-paying jobs, and set America on a path to win the future" and that he hoped to sign it as soon as possible.

Broadband details

The bill includes $65 billion to help close the digital divide. This includes more than $40 billion for broadband deployment and $14.2 billion for broadband-affordability programs. It also includes $2.75 billion in digital inclusion grants to help improve digital literacy.

The news was applauded by industry groups representing rural broadband providers, such as the NTCA--The Rural Broadband Association, which represents rural telecommunications companies; the Competitive Carrier Association, which represents rural wireless carriers; America's Communications Association, which represents small and medium-size independent rural broadband companies; and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which represents electric cooperatives that are also offering broadband service. 

"For too long, broadband was seen as 'nice to have,' but if the pandemic has taught us anything, it's that robust, reliable, and affordable connectivity is a necessity," the NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association's CEO, Shirley Bloomfield, said in a statement. "This funding presents an opportunity to make great strides toward connecting all Americans and, if implemented wisely, could go a long way toward bridging the digital divide for a generation or longer."

Making broadband more affordable 

Though new infrastructure for broadband is welcomed by many, several groups also applauded the Senate for including provisions to make broadband more affordable and equitable, especially for low-income families. The bill calls for making permanent a subsidy program that would be administered by the Federal Communications Commission.

"For far too long, the conversation in Washington about the digital divide focused on broadband deployment alone," said Matt Wood, vice president of policy and general counsel for the consumer advocacy group Free Press Action. "Today's vote shows that era is over. Never before have we seen such a meaningful congressional investment in closing the digital divide for people who already have access to high-speed internet networks but cannot afford to connect."

The new Affordable Connectivity Program established in the legislation will provide households living near the poverty line or enrolled in other federal-aid programs with up to $30 per month for the internet package of their choosing from participating providers. That maximum allowance would increase to $75 per month for people living on Tribal Lands and could also include people living in other remote and rural areas, where prices are often higher.

Earlier this year the FCC began administering the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which offers a $50 a month subsidy to people struggling to pay their broadband bill. The funding for the program came from congressional COVID relief funding. 

The new infrastructure bill also sets aside billions more for digital-inclusion efforts, and it calls on the FCC and other federal agencies to require internet providers to offer more transparency in broadband pricing. In addition, it directs these agencies to adopt regulations to ensure providers aren't discriminating based on race, ethnicity or income when it comes to where they provide service in their territory. This practice, known as redlining, has historically existed in housing, banking and  insurance. The blatant practice of redlining is illegal, but there are many critics who say the practice still exists in broadband access, as providers often avoid low-income neighborhoods with high percentages of residents of color. 

"For too long, broadband providers have labeled densely populated, low-income neighborhoods not economically viable for upgrades to high-speed broadband," Chris Lewis, CEO of public interest group Public Knowledge, said in a statement. "This is discrimination, pure and simple, and it must be ended."

What's next? 

The infrastructure package is expected to move to the House of Representatives before it lands on Biden's desk for signing. It isn't expected to arrive there until after House members return from their summer recess on Sept. 20. 

House Democrats aren't expected to make dramatic changes to the infrastructure bill. But they've insisted the Senate first pass a separate $3.5 trillion bill that focuses on addressing issues like child care, climate change and health care. That bill is much more partisan than the infrastructure bill, and Democrats in the Senate are pursuing the passage of it through a budget reconciliation process that requires only a simple majority rather than a vote of 60 members in the senate. 

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, brought up the budget resolution immediately after the infrastructure bill's passage. On Tuesday afternoon, the Senate voted 50-49 along party lines to proceed with the resolution before going on recess. The Senate is set to return for a few days Sept. 13, and then it'll return for a longer period starting Sept. 20.