The bill includes funding for everything from railways to wastewater infrastructure, but can it help shrink the digital divide in the US?
Late on Friday, the House of Representatives approved President Joe Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, passing the legislation with a vote of 228 to 206.
The bill’s journey towards becoming law has been a bumpy one, facing opposition from both sides of the political fence. Naturally, the majority of Republican representatives opposed the bill, dubbing it as an excessive use of taxpayer money and a slippery slope towards ‘big government’. Nonetheless, 16 Republicans did ultimately support the bill.
Meanwhile, a faction of the more left-wing Democrats thought that the bill did not go far enough, having instead argued that a larger package, including additional subsidies for childcare and climate change, was warranted. All but six Democrats were eventually won over, with moderate Democrats pledging to support an additional “Build Back Better” bill later this month.
Having passed, the bill will now be sent to President Biden himself to sign into law.
The scale of this new investment cannot be underestimated, with Biden comparing it in scale to the building of the transcontinental railroad and Interstate Highway System. Included within its remit are funds for roads and bridges; public transit systems; passenger and freight rail; electric vehicles; the modernisation of the electric grid; airports; water and sewerage systems; and, of course, increased broadband access.
But what exactly will this mean for the digital divide in the US?
Around $65 billion is earmarked for improving internet access across the country, with $42.45 billion going to states and territories to focus on unserved and underserved regions. Naturally, this means that some states will be receiving more financial support than others, but each of the 50 states will receive a minimum of $100 million.
A further $14.2 billion will be made available as subsidies directly to qualified low-income users, extending the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit Program that was initiated during the pandemic. Now renamed as the Affordable Connectivity Fund, this now permanent programme will provide a $30 discount on connectivity services for qualified households.
The Digital Equity Act, which supports programmes for increasing digital literacy, will receive $2.75 billion, with a further $2 billion each set aside for United States Department of Agriculture rural broadband programmes and Tribal broadband projects.
More generally, $1 billion will be spent on the so-called ‘middle-mile’ connections, upgrading the nation’s digital backbone. Finally, $600 million will be used for tax exempt Private Activity Bonds.
All told, this bill could be transformative for some of the more poorly served areas of the US, with the negative effects of the digital divide typically mirroring the economic disparity between ethnic groups in the US. A study from Pew Research Center recently showed that while 80% of adults in the US reported having access to a broadband connection, this figure was just 71% for Black respondents, and 65% for Hispanic respondents.
Rectifying digital inequality is an issue especially close to the heart of the FCC’s new chairperson, Jessica Rosenworcel, who had been serving as acting chair since January before being officially appointed in late October. Rosenworcel has been a major advocate for expanding internet access across communities throughout her career, saying in her acceptance speech that “it is an honour to work with my colleagues on the Commission and the agency’s talented staff to ensure that no matter who you are or where you live, everyone has the connections they need to live, work, and learn in the digital age.”
Rosenworcel’s appointment has also opened the door for yet another Commissioner to be nominated, in this case popular consumer advocate Gigi Sohn. Sohn, who is notable within the telecoms sector for helping to form coalitions to combat consolidation, could present something of a threat to the monopolistic power enjoyed by the country’s major telcos, though the extent to which this becomes reality remains to be seen.
Want to keep up to date with the latest developments in the world of telecoms? Subscriber to receive Total Telecom’s daily newsletter here
Also in the news: