With roughly 9 out of 10 adults in America using the internet, the vast majority of people consider it to be a necessity of modern life. Because access to the internet is unavailable or inadequate in parts of the country, there is growing bipartisan interest in ways the federal government could deploy broadband—the technologies that allow internet data to be transmitted at high speeds—as widely as possible.
Because inadequate internet access is found in both rural and economically disadvantaged inner-city areas, this issue bridges the usual red/blue divide. It also addresses economic, education, and social inequalities. Much like rural electrification in the past, bringing broadband to those areas without it may be key to residents having greater opportunity to improve their circumstances. The urgent need to modernize broadband to expand internet access was felt keenly during the coronavirus pandemic.
Several bipartisan bills have been introduced to expand rural broadband. One leading example is the bipartisan bill Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Joe Manchin (D-WV) introduced on March 12, 2021, the Hotspots and Online Technology and Services Procurement for our Tribes and States (HOTSPOTS) Act. This legislation would help libraries across rural and low-income America provide broadband hotspots to their communities and ensure Americans have access to the reliable broadband they need to work and learn from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Senators Collins and Manchin are leaders of a moderate group of 16 senators (eight Democrats and eight Republicans) known as the Common Sense Coalition. Due to the 50/50 balance in the Senate between Democrats and Republicans and his outspoken opposition to certain Democratic legislation, Senator Joe Manchin has a great deal of influence and power in Washington. He believes strongly that legislation proceed in a bipartisan fashion.
This bill would create a two-year, $200 million hotspot pilot program with a minimum allotment of $2 million per state to allow states, tribes, and territories to purchase and distribute Internet-connected devices to libraries in low-income and rural areas. Under this legislation, hotspots and other devices would be treated no differently than other items in a library’s inventory, allowing users to check them out and libraries to track who has the devices and for how long, maintaining accountability and good governance while bringing connectivity to homes that otherwise would be lacking.
Other bills focus on investments to build broadband infrastructure directly to homes in unserved and underserved communities. The only bills to expand infrastructure for broadband connections directly to homes that have been introduced in this Congress so far do not yet have bipartisan support. U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, and House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-SC) led 28 other Democratic Senators and Representatives in introducing the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act on March 11, 2021, to invest over $94 billion in broadband infrastructure. On March 24, 2021, Republican Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott (both R-SC) introduced the State Fix Act, a Republican version that would invest $20 billion in broadband infrastructure. Advocates for closing the digital divide are hopeful that these Democratic and Republican bills are the beginning of a conversation that will lead to a bipartisan bill that can pass both the House and Senate.