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Witnesses Advocate for Broadband Inclusion in Infrastructure Plan

April 30, 2021 by Victoria Turner
Various ports on the rear of a Verizon Fios set top box are seen in a 2010 file image. (Richard B. Levine/Sipa USA/TNS)

WASHINGTON – At the beginning of the pandemic, Buffalo’s public school system found thousands of students with no internet access and partnered with the private sector and the Buffalo Bills Social Justice Fund to get lower-cost Spectrum Cable internet service and raise $500,000 to connect the students. But this was just a “classic example that the [local] government cannot do this on its own,” said Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown at a hearing yesterday. 

In Buffalo, public-private partnerships have proven beneficial but, if anything, it’s “[made] the case of resources needed from the federal government” to tackle the inequality in affordable, high-speed broadband access across the U.S., Brown said at the House Ways and Means Committee’s subcommittee entitled, Advancing U.S. Economic Competitiveness, Equity, and Sustainability through Infrastructure Investments.

“This new round of infrastructure investment must promise to close the digital divide [between communities with high-speed broadband access and those without] and avoid widening systemic inequalities including racism, poverty and social isolation,” urged Nicol Turner Lee, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. 

As part of the infrastructure plan within President Biden’s American Jobs Plan, $100 billion will be allocated for state and local governments to build out their broadband infrastructure. Democratic and Republican lawmakers yesterday debated whether broadband access should be included as infrastructure.

Some Republicans argued that broadband is not infrastructure akin to bridges, highways, or even water pipelines. But Stan Santos, a 22-year splicing technician and legislative chair for Communications Workers of America urged that “broadband is an essential utility in today’s society just like electricity and water.” 

And the U.S. must build out its “information infrastructure” to meet the 21st Century’s global digital economy, Brown said. From the shift to digital trade to “[laying] the foundation” of “digital infrastructure” that will sustain autonomous vehicles through sensors, devices and the likes, he explained, Biden’s plan outlines the “right kind of infrastructure funding.” It “advances our concepts of infrastructure beyond roads and bridges… we have an opportunity to grow our economy in an equitable and inclusive way” to build a “more prosperous America” for every resident. 

Thirty-six percent of U.S. households still do not have a broadband connection that even meets the Federal Communications Commission’s “speed definition” and “access is stratified by race and income,” Santos said. Even the internet hotspots provided to families by school districts run on the “lowest tier of connectivity to scattered rural cell towers,” he added, saying many of the hotspots he tested have “extremely slow speeds and unreliable connection.” Out of 3600 students in one rural school district he works with, only 1800 students were provided these “inadequate and unsustainable” hotspots. 

With 73 of the largest 100 K-12 schools in the U.S. only offering remote or hybrid classes currently, the reality is that broadband will “play a permanent role in our lives,” said Turner Lee, The pandemic also saw a 20% increase in remote work, now constituting 71% of U.S. employed adults. 

Turner Lee mapped out “America’s Tech New Deal,” with three key points: 

  • “Digital infrastructure must be deployed equally and accurately” by mapping out the areas that lack broadband and need it the most, particularly underserved rural, suburban and tribal areas. 
  • Universal broadband service must be reformed, making it affordable and accessible for all.
  • Infrastructure must be “[paired]” with workforce development to put the many displaced workers back to work with equitable, sustainable wages and careers. 

If anything has come to light through the pandemic, she said, is a “return on investment” in universal service for broadband that is affordable, “fair, inclusive and accessible for all.” To “create this runway” the U.S. needs to move away from the “market-based outcomes” model of consumption to create an “ecosystem” where everyone is connected and get people back to work through apprenticeships and credentialing programs through the Labor Department.

Maybe what the U.S. needs, Turner Lee suggested, is for the school leaders to be directed under a “No Child Left Offline” initiative. 

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