Lawmakers focus on bridging broadband divide highlighted amid pandemic

After the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the deep broadband divide across the country, lawmakers on Wednesday said the recently passed infrastructure bill will connect many communities that struggled as much of daily life moved online. 

The newly passed infrastructure bill allocates some $550 billion toward  bridge construction, road repairs, and efficient transportation systems — as well as some $65 billion for broadband access, aimed at rural areas, lower income populations and tribal communities. 

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) pointed out during The Hill’s “The Great Rebuild” event that poor connectivity went beyond rural communities, and affected communities of color as well. 

“We all had a reminder during this pandemic of the fact that there’s a lot of rural areas — there’s 49 other states, not just Delaware — where people don’t have good connectivity. There’s a lot of urban areas where people don’t have good connectivity,” Carper told The Hill’s Stever Clemons. 

“That’s the bad news, but the good news is that we can do something about it,” he added. 

Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich), recalled how students in his state were unable to attend classes at the start of the pandemic because they didn’t have access to broadband. 

“One young man who was from my county said, ‘That’s not going to help me. We don’t have broadband in my town. What am I going to do, go to McDonalds?” Upton said at the event, sponsored by Nokia. 

Nearly two years later, this continues to be an issue for millions of students who are in hybrid or virtual school environments. An even larger number of students are “under-connected”, meaning they have internet devices in their home with slow connectivity. 

The Pew Research Center found that Black and Hispanic adults are less likely than white adults to have access to high speed internet connection or computer devices. This disparity can have a negative impact on job possibilities or accessing telehealth opportunities. 

In a survey, Pew also found that 34 percent of households making less than $30,000 a year had trouble paying for broadband amidst the pandemic outbreak. 

The legislation, which both Upton and Carper voted for, plans to address the discrepancies across these groups. However, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) raised concerns in October that broadband maps need updates to ensure the spending goes to the right places. 

Upton said Wednesday the stakes for success are high. “Broadband today is similar to what the interstate highway system identified as a need with President Eisenhower in the 50s,” he said. 

Tags Broadband Cathy McMorris Rodgers Fred Upton infrastructure spending bill Tom Carper

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