What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

How infrastructure funding to expand broadband access could create a ‘generational shift’

The Senate is debating a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill this week that would invest in vital public works projects throughout the country. One key portion would expand broadband internet access for millions of Americans. Nicol Turner-Lee, senior fellow of governance studies and director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution, joins Lisa Desjardins to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Senate is debating a trillion dollar bipartisan infrastructure bill this week that would invest in vital public works projects throughout the country.

    One key portion expands broadband Internet access for millions of Americans.

    Lisa Desjardins explains.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Among the larger single pieces in this bill is $65 billion set aside for high-speed broadband long seen, an area long seen as having big gaps and disparities.

    Right now, in America, some 30 million people either have no Internet or they get it at speeds too slow to access the modern Web. Another 100 million have some access, but they don't subscribe to broadband, many because they can't afford it.

    This deal addresses both, with a large amount to expand to new communities, and $14 billion to help with affordability.

    To help us understand what all this means. I'm joined by Nicol Turner Lee, senior fellow and director of the Center for Technology and Innovation at the Brookings Institution.

    Nicol, tell us, who are we talking about in terms of Americans who don't have high-speed Internet? And what does that actually mean in their lives?

  • Nicol Turner Lee:

    The pandemic has definitely demonstrated that being connected mattered, right, whether you were a school-age child that needed to be online to get access to learning, whether you are remotely working, whether you're somebody who could not go into a hospital and it was important for you to see your doctor via telehealth.

    Having a connection mattered. And I think the infrastructure bill, Lisa, is really telling us that we have got to find ways so that we can break through the equitable aspects of this, the affordability of broadband, where it's actually deployed, and make sure that no one is ever left offline again.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    What do you think this money can actually do?

    Is it kind of the, I say — I hear generational shift being said at the Capitol a lot. Is this a generational shift in terms of technology in this country, potentially?

  • Nicol Turner Lee:

    Well, it's a generational shift in the form of including broadband as one of the critical infrastructures in this country, right?

    We normally think of infrastructure as electricity, as water systems, transit. And now we're actually seeing that a data infrastructure, a communications infrastructure matters. So, I think, going forward, that is a huge generational shift from when we actually saw the New Deal era programs that came out of the Great Depression.

    With that being the case, I think what we're also realizing is that this technology is not just about the haves and have-nots. It's really about people who are leveraging the technology to be able to apply for jobs, to get access to employment and medical care opportunities and, as I said, schooling.

    So the question that's going to come out of this bill is, are we going to be able to solve — I think some of the big things that it's going to do, universal access. Who actually has access to broadband? Are they being redlined out of having access? Are they included in areas where it's going to be easy to deploy it, like rural communities?

    The question of equity. How do we make sure that people have equal access to adopt the technology and use it for the very purposes that we have discussed? And I think affordability. People are making really hard decisions now between broadband and bread.

    And I think what the bill is actually going to do is allow some leeway through some of the incentives for subsidy towards the broadband bills that people are actually carrying, so they don't have to make those hard choices.

    Right now, people need to be online to actually survive. And I think that's going to be a big part of economic recovery.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You mentioned rural communities.

    We know one of the groups that does have trouble with Internet connectivity is farmers. And our team today reached out, spoke with a Wisconsin Farmers Union representative. And this is what she told us about the problem for her farmers.

  • Julie Bomar:

    It's caused great concern, especially this last year, I mean, even with things like getting their kids on the Internet, so that they can attend school virtually.

    But it also has a financial impact on the bottom line for farmers, because they will — they need to be up online in order to sell directly, if they're, like, doing direct market sales. We have got members whose businesses have — new businesses have been hampered by their lack of broadband access.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Nicol, what are the real economic effects for this country of having such a spotty Internet map right now?

  • Nicol Turner Lee:

    I think that that is a great question.

    And having done this for over 20 years, I think part of what we're seeing is, we need to make these investments, but we need the data to know where we have to target them. The experiences of small farmers today, I mean, they are obviously competing against larger farmers in the footprints that they're in, but they also — in some cases, they don't want to go to precision agriculture, right, which is the next wave of advanced technology — technological use.

    They want to simply be able to order equipment. And so I think it's a real cause, when we have farmers and other local businesses that cannot get online, because they have to be digitized in order to survive.

    And so this bill, I think, allows some leeway to actually give some recovery to those entities.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Farmers have a problem with access at all, but in the cities in this country, there's a huge problem with affordability.

    What do you think that this bill could do about that?

  • Nicol Turner Lee:

    Well, one thing I like about the bill, it is actually presenting a solution that is an American problem.

    So, on the rural side of this, we know that we're going to have topographical challenges when it comes to connecting places where there are more cows than farms — than people.

    On the urban side, we need to work on competition. People should have a variety of choices of where they can actually access service. And that's not always the case. And the only way that you can reduce prices is if you make sure that people can actually have a potpourri of choice when it comes to getting access to digital services.

    And so given the fact that we have so many uses of technology right now to be able to move things remotely vs. in person, it's so important that we address both the urban challenges and the rural, but we also address them together, because, together, the country needs to actually move in a way that we have full connectivity.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    If this bill passes, becomes law, in five years from now, where do you think we will be with this problem?

  • Nicol Turner Lee:

    I am hoping, in five years from now, that we will actually solve this digital divide that has plagued the country prior to the pandemic.

    But, if we're not, I think we will be one step closer to understanding just how important it is for people to have access to 21st century resources. No longer can we rest upon the laurels of being in line. We really need to make being online a human reality, because that's where society is going.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Nicol Turner Lee of the Brookings Institution, thank you so much.

Listen to this Segment