House, Senate Democrats Say Time Has Come for Internet for All
WASHINGTON – House and Senate Democrats assembled at the U.S. Capitol Thursday to unveil a new $94 billion proposal to make broadband internet more accessible and affordable nationwide, striking a blow at the digital inequalities that have become all-too-apparent during the pandemic.
The push for affordable broadband is being led in the House by the chamber’s Majority Whip, Rep. James E. Clyburn, of South Carolina, and in the Senate, by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, of Minnesota.
Their bill, drafted with extensive collaboration from members of the House Rural Broadband Task Force, And House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Rep. Frank Pallone, of New Jersey, aims to be bold and it is.
If signed into law, it would extend internet service into poor and rural areas where it currently doesn’t exist, improve speed in places where connectivity and streaming is spotty or sluggish, and provide assistance to families who struggle to pay their monthly internet bills.
“Access to broadband today will have the same dramatic impact on rural communities as the rural electrification efforts in the last century,” Clyburn said.
“When I formed the Rural Broadband Task Force, our mission was to address the digital divide,” he said. “The disparate effects of that divide have been amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic and exposed the urgency of ensuring universal access to high-speed internet. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the House and Senate to enact the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act.”
As Clyburn suggested, closing the digital divide between the haves and have-nots has long been a priority among congressional Democrats. However, the pandemic, and its impact of students who have been forced out of classrooms and workers out of their place of employment, has provided a renewed sence of urgency to their efforts.
“This pandemic has made clear that broadband is no longer nice-to-have, it’s need-to-have for everyone, everywhere,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, acting FCC chairwoman and a supporter of the bill. “Kudos to the Rural Broadband Task Force for recognizing this fundamental truth and developing a plan to connect us all. Working together we can solve the digital divide and give everyone a fair shot at internet age success.”
Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel at Consumer Reports, said the bill represents “a long overdue down payment” for what it will take to get more Americans, especially the most vulnerable, connected to high-speed internet.
“Of the many things we have quickly learned as millions of Americans have shifted to working, learning, and receiving medical care at home during the pandemic is the absolute necessity of a reliable and affordable internet
connection with clear and transparent pricing.,” Schwantes said.
“This act contains several provisions that address the affordability and price transparency challenges, while also encouraging community broadband alternatives by doing away with anti-competitive, anti-consumer state laws that prohibit local broadband networks that could offer its residents better service at lower prices,” he added.
A number of lawmakers, including Rep. Cheri Bustos, of Illinois, commented on the large number of their constituents who were forced to do without high speed internet access at the height of the pandemic — in many cases the number spiraling as high as four out of 10.
In a report last year federal regulators found that at least 18 million Americans lacked reliable internet connectivity, and admitted the number could be much higher.
The inequity in service is particularly acute in rural communities, where options for service are limited, and in urban and tribal areas where many low-income families can’t afford to pay for access to the internet.
Rep. Abigail Spanberger, of Virginia said the problem has real ramifications for the future, as “a lack of broadband connectivity hurts the ability of students to complete their homework, farmers to take advantage of the latest ag technologies, and businesses to recruit and hire new employees.”
Supporters of the bill, the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, are urging their colleagues to sign on as co-sponsors and help it advance as the Biden administration turns its attention from COVID relief to infrastructure.
“When we invest in broadband infrastructure, we invest in opportunity for all Americans,” Klobuchar said. “In 2021, we should be able to bring high-speed internet to every family in America — regardless of their zip code. This legislation will help bridge the digital divide once and for all.”
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