The Biden administration is taking the first steps to release $45 billion to ensure all US residents have access to high-speed internet by roughly 2028, inviting governors and other leaders on Friday to begin the process of application.
Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo oversees distribution and said universal broadband Internet access would be similar to the electrification of rural America during the 1930s, a recognition that the Internet is a necessary service for for US residents to function in today’s economy.
“There are more than 30 million Americans who don’t have internet,” Raimondo said. “And in this day and age without high-speed internet, you can’t go to school, you can’t go to the doctor, you can’t do simple things. Think about how many times in a day you search for something on Google or connect to the Internet.”
The funding is part of the $65 billion for broadband in the $1 trillion infrastructure package that President Joe Biden signed into law last November. That bipartisan package is one of the political achievements the Democratic president is trying to sell to voters ahead of the midterm elections, though it’s unclear how much the message will resonate when much of the country is focused on high inflation, cultural differences and political identity. .
Former President Donald Trump has dismissed infrastructure spending as “bogus” even though spending on broadband was one of his own priorities. His Department of Agriculture said in 2020 that he had invested $744 million in rural internet connectivity, a significant but insufficient sum.
Raimondo travels to Durham, North Carolina. He will announce that governors can submit their letters of intent to receive the broadband money, which comes from three programs totaling $45 billion. Each state would then receive $5 million to help him consult with residents and write his plan.
The Department of Commerce recognizes that Internet needs vary by state. The money could be used to lay fiber optic cable, build Wi-Fi hotspots or even reduce monthly charges in places where price is the main challenge. After the administration’s announcement Monday that it would provide a $30 monthly subsidy to low-income households, Raimondo said states could use the extra money from these programs to make service free for some users.
The allocations would also be influenced by the release this fall of new maps from the Federal Communications Commission detailing where people lack Internet service or are underserved. Governors and other leaders would have six months to use this data to shape their final applications. Eligible states and areas are guaranteed a minimum of $100 million, though the average payout would be closer to $800 million, according to rough estimates from the Commerce Department.
The goal is for states to establish a five-year timeline for providing full Internet access, while ensuring affordable Internet access and promoting competition among providers. The federal government has not defined what qualifies as affordable, as it could be different across the country based on the cost of living.
The commerce secretary said she saw the impact that the universal availability of the Internet could have on people on their travels.
She said she spoke with a widower in rural South Carolina whose late wife could only see a doctor regularly via telehealth but lacked a high-speed connection. Raimondo spoke with a college student in Atlanta with a full-time job who had to drive back to campus to get online to do her homework, leaving the student so exhausted that she fell asleep at the wheel and had two car accidents.
“The digital divide is closed, and the opportunity gap is closed,” Raimondo said, “and we are indeed fulfilling the American promise to give everyone the opportunity for a good job, education and health care.”