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No House Left Offline | Federal News Network


While the long-awaited bipartisan Infrastructure and Jobs Act represents an unprecedented opportunity to bridge America’s digital divide, it also sets up an experiment to test the competing philosophies on which America was built. At a time of growing political polarization, the infrastructure bill reflects an unusual point of agreement between ideology and partisanship. Policymakers left and right have come together to agree on the importance of bolstering America’s infrastructure. In particular, they agreed that we can no longer accept a digital divide that prevents nearly 23% of Americans from sending their children to school, working remotely or accessing health care, job training , social safety net or essential government services.

With a goal to invest $65 billion in broadband infrastructure, affordability, and adoption, Congress has set the stage to dramatically accelerate progress in connecting 28.2 million homes without internet. economic and security opportunities because they cannot access or afford broadband at home. At the same time, the structure of this historic investment, which allocates two-thirds of the spending power to the states and the rest to federal agencies and departments, is a true test of the most effective approach to solving the problems of our society. federalist, and whether a hybrid approach might prove even more effective.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill tackles the two main barriers that keep American households offline. First, $42.5 billion goes to states to connect the 7.1 million homes that are offline because they don’t have access to internet infrastructure. Second, $14.2 billion is going to the Federal Communications Commission to connect the 18.1 million households, representing nearly two-thirds of the digital divide, who have access to home broadband but are disconnected because they don’t have the means to connect. Both tasks are difficult, but in five years we will see who has connected more Americans: the states or the federal government.

To succeed, states and federal agencies and departments would be wise to learn from past efforts to bridge the digital divide. First, you can’t improve what you can’t measure. Without detailed household-level information about who has access to a broadband connection and who hasn’t signed up, congressional investments in broadband infrastructure and accessibility won’t close the digital divide. Without good data, we will also be unable to track our progress and measure which approach has been most effective. Second, to maximize success, we must maximize collaboration. Neither the states nor the federal government have the resources on the ground to truly connect the unconnected. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) need to build infrastructure, but nonprofits, community organizations, and trusted local institutions like school districts will be critical partners in reaching unconnected households, convincing them that new Federal broadband benefits aren’t “too good to be true,” and help them navigate the complex process of signing up for home broadband. Finally, we need to enable these actors on the ground to easily connect households by supporting them with funding, manuals, and tools, which Congress helped address with the $2.75 billion Digital Equity Act. dollars included in the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

We are not starting from scratch here. These are the same strategies that enabled EducationSuperHighway, the nonprofit I founded, to bridge the digital divide in American K-12 schools. At a time when broadband has become as essential to classroom learning as chalkboards once were, we’ve found that by working with federal and state leaders, leveraging data, establishing a broad public-private partnership and by providing school districts with procurement and technical support, we have been able to connect 47 million students in 99.3% of US public schools from K-12 in just seven years.

The COVID-19 pandemic has painfully demonstrated that all Americans are worse off when nearly 80 million people are unconnected at home. Over the past decade, public policy has operated at the speed of a digital snail, connecting households to broadband at a rate of just 1% per year. The bipartisan infrastructure bill can accelerate these efforts toward internet speed. With a focused effort built around a successful broadband playbook that marries both state and local initiatives, we can finally close the digital divide once and for all. Along the way, we can hopefully learn whether state or federal leadership is most effective. Of course, if state and federal governments work together toward a common goal, with shared data and a proven playbook, the answer may be that we can achieve extraordinary results, in this case leaving no home offline.

Evan Marwell is founder and CEO of EducationSuperHighway.