This story is part of, CNET’s coverage of how the country is working toward making broadband access universal.
After months of heated negotiation among Democrats, the House of Representatives on Friday night passed the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, which provides funding for everything from roads and bridges to electrical grids. A small but important sliver of the infrastructure bill could also be a possible salve to the digital divide.
The vote, which largely fell along party lines, was 228-206. Thirteen Republicans joined 215 Democrats to pass the legislation, which will now head to President Joe Biden for signing. Six Democrats voted against the bill, because the larger social spending bill failed to gain enough support for a vote on Friday.
The vote came after moderate Democrats assured progressive members of the party that they would vote for the larger Build Back Better Act, which focuses on social spending, when that bill comes up for a vote.
For more than a month, Democrats have been at an impasse over two bills at the center of Biden’s domestic agenda, which had left in limbo the fate of the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that the Senate passed in August. This legislation provides long-overdue funding to upgrade traditional infrastructure such as roads, bridges and electrical grids. But also included in the bill is $65 billion in federal funding for broadband investment.
On one side of the debate are progressives in the House, led by Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington, who had been threatening to sink the legislation if a much larger “human infrastructure” bill — which they say must include money for child care, paid leave, universal pre-K, community college, affordable housing, Medicare expansion and climate action — wasn’t passed via budget reconciliation in the Senate.
On the other side are two moderate Senate Democrats — Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona — who have repeatedly said the $3.5 trillion price tag is too hefty. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California postponed a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill in late September, setting a new deadline of Oct. 31. She then postponed a vote again after it became clear there were not enough votes to pass the legislation.
Pressure to pass both the traditional infrastructure package and the larger social spending bills heightened this week after Democrats sustained a major loss in Tuesday’s gubernatorial election in Virginia and after the party narrowly held onto the governor seat in New Jersey.
The opportunity of a lifetime
Broadband experts had been bracing themselves for the worst, fearing that a stalemate that resulted in the House not voting on the bipartisan infrastructure bill would fritter away a once-in-a-generation opportunity to finally close the digital divide, an issue that has dogged policy makers for decades.
“I think we get one shot at this,” Mark Buell, regional vice president, North America, of the Internet Society, said back in September.
The bipartisan infrastructure bill includes a commitment of $42 billion to deploy broadband where it doesn’t yet exist. Where broadband is available, it promises another $14.2 billion to create a permanent $30-a-month-subsidy program to help low-income Americans afford service. The bill offers an additional $2.75 billion for digital equity and inclusion efforts, which could end digital redlining, the practice of internet service providers avoiding lower-income areas — typically neighborhoods with large populations of people of color — where they don’t think they’ll make money.
For the first time in more than two decades, policymakers see a real chance to make a difference.
“Out of crisis is opportunity,” FCC acting chair Jessica Rosenworcel said in an interview with CNET in September. “With this crisis, we’ve ended the days where we talk about broadband as a ‘nice-to-have.’ Policymakers everywhere now understand it’s a ‘need-to-have’ for everyone across this country.”
In 2010, the Obama administration’s National Broadband Plan presented a guide for developing policy to crack the problem. But the report, published well after Congress had allocated stimulus money in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, didn’t spur concerted action, said Blair Levin, now a Wall Street analyst but earlier a Federal Communications Commission official during the Clinton administration and the lead author of the National Broadband Plan.
“Ten years ago when we wrote the National Broadband Plan, we articulated many of the same things people are citing now,” he said. “But it wasn’t a priority. There wasn’t a lot of political capital. There also wasn’t any money left to tackle these issues.”
In 2017, the FCC estimated that it would cost $40 billion to deploy fiber networks to 98% of households. The agency said in 2021 that it has made some progress in ensuring more Americans are connected to broadband. From 2018 to 2019, the FCC said the number of Americans lacking at least a 25 megabit per second broadband connection dropped more than 20% to 14.5 million Americans.
Those left behind without access to reliable, affordable broadband are disproportionately people in communities of color, rural areas and low-income households. Pew Research Center data shows that 80% of white adults in the US report they have a broadband connection, while 71% of Black respondents say they have access to broadband and only 65% of Hispanics report having broadband.
In large rural and urban areas, high-speed internet access is simply nonexistent. In many other communities, service is often unreliable, unaffordable or too slow.
The COVID-19 pandemic made it clear that Americans need broadband to do everything from go to work to attend school to access health care. Congress committed billions in federal COVID relief dollars to provide subsidies to millions of Americans to keep them online.
Levin said the worldwide shutdown due to COVID is the driving force behind more investment to close the digital divide.
“COVID-19 was a better evangelist for why we need to solve this problem than I could ever be,” he said. “COVID taught lots of government officials why you need every school kid to have broadband in their homes and why rural areas need it for health care. There’s true bipartisan support now.”