White House tries to close the digital divide in rural America with more broadband access

The so-called “digital divide” remains a major issue in America when it comes to providing high-speed internet, particularly in rural and other low-income communities. The Biden administration on Monday announced new commitments from 20 internet providers to help close that gap by lowering the cost for millions. The Brookings Institution's Nicol Turner Lee joins Stephanie Sy to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The so-called digital divide remains a major issue in America when it comes to providing high-speed Internet, particularly in rural areas and low-income communities.

    Today, the Biden administration announced new commitments from 20 commercial Internet providers to help close that gap by lowering the cost of high-speed Internet for millions of Americans.

    Stephanie Sy gets an assessment of these latest efforts.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Judy, White House officials say nearly 40 percent of U.S. households qualify for what's called the Affordability Connectivity Program.

    The agreement with providers such as Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and others offers eligible families high-speed Internet at a cost of no more than $30 a month. Most eligible families will get subsidies to essentially eliminate those costs. The money comes from the infrastructure law.

    President Biden spoke today about why better service is essential.

  • President Joe Biden:

    High-speed Internet is not a luxury any longer. It's a necessity. And that's why the bipartisan infrastructure law included $65 billion to make sure we expand access to broadband Internet in every region of the country, urban, suburban, and rural.

    And if you qualify, you're going to get a $30 credit per month toward your Internet bill, which means — which, most folks, will mean they get on for nothing, look, zero.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Joining me now is Nicol Turner Lee. She's the director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution.

    Nicol, thank you so much for your time.

    So, previous administrations have tried to deal with the issue of affordability; $60-$70 per month is a burden for many households to get high-speed Internet. How big of a deal is it that the Biden administration's has gotten these subsidies done? How big of a shift is it from previous policy?

  • Nicol Turner Lee, Brookings Institution:

    Well, Stephanie, thanks for having me.

    Listen, this is a big deal. And I'm going to tell you why it's a big deal, for several reasons. First and foremost, it's a public-private sector partnership and one we haven't seen in a while when it comes to providing Internet access to low-income families or other vulnerable populations, including those on tribal lands.

    It's also a big deal because what we have found out in this pandemic is that families struggled. I mean, when you think about the fact that 34 percent of low-income adults struggled to keep their Internet online at a time when they were working and learning, we needed something like this.

    And I think this is a great way for us to bring more people into the digital economy.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    So, 11.5 million households have already signed up for this subsidy. What are the barriers to getting more people signed up? And does the administration have a plan for getting the word out that you think will work?

  • Nicol Turner Lee:

    Yes, the administration has thought long and hard about this, right, along with the companies that are major companies, Comcast, Verizon, Spectrum, and a host of others, as you mentioned.

    They have thought about how to raise awareness. And that's going to be a big deal. How do you get people to really come to either the store of these companies? Or the administration has put together a Web site, GetInternet.gov, for folks to get access.

    I know, in certain states and cities, they're going to do text message campaigns. The key thing for people to know is, if you are receiving certain government assistance, you can actually get access to this program. And so we're going to need an all-hands-on-deck strategy, I think, to get more people with awareness that they can actually receive this $30 subsidy.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    As you said, Nicol, this was a private-public partnership. The nation's biggest service providers agreed to offer these lower-cost, supposedly high-quality Internet plans. By the way, that's 100 megabits per second. That's what qualifies as high-speed.

    But some underserved areas, Nicol, still lack access to broadband infrastructure. Those companies have been accused by some activists of furthering that digital divide by not providing adequate Internet to poorer neighborhoods.

    Is that true, or is this a government policy problem?

  • Nicol Turner Lee:

    I like the way that you actually bring this up.

    I mean, look, even in the excitement, we have to keep questioning, what other challenges do we have? We know right now, Stephanie, we do not have universal broadband. So there will be a proportion of people who will not get access, simply because there are no facilities, or they just don't have a choice of the providers that are participating in the program.

    So I think we have to keep remembering in tandem with this is the bipartisan infrastructure bill. And in tandem with that is the fact that we are going to deploy more broadband assets across the U.S., and we're going to find ways to actually do digital literacy trading.

    I think, if we look at this, in and of itself, it is a huge accomplishment. I have been doing this for a really long time. So thank you, President Biden and Vice President Harris.

    But I do think we have to have these with simultaneous programs if it's going to be fully effective.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    As you mentioned, the pandemic really highlighted some of the social inequities brought up by broadband access. In fact, nearly half of Americans who don't have at-home Internet are in Black and Hispanic households.

    I wonder if you talk about that a little bit. What do we know about how economic, educational and health outcomes are impacted by this lack of broadband access in those households?

  • Nicol Turner Lee:

    I love that you asked that question, because we have to think of it also that, when we're talking about closing the digital divide, we're not just talking about bits and bytes, tablets, or laptops and service. We're talking about changing the trajectory of inequality.

    And I think what we have to understand is, the digital divide is more than just the technology itself. It's about a pathway to some of the economic opportunities that are available. When 50 million school-aged kids were actually sent home, and 15 to 16 million of them did not have broadband access to learn, that was a problem.

    And, unfortunately, it did disproportionately affect Black and brown and Native students, who really needed access to learn. And I'm not just talking at K-12. I'm talking about college students as well, who left their campuses and went homes, where they were in that desert.

    So I think, Stephanie, to your point, I think, as we look at this entire trajectory, we have to keep reminding ourselves that this is about closing the inequality gap. And when we close that gap in this digital economy, I think we will be better off in the long run.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Nicol Turner Lee with the Brookings Institution, thank you so much for joining the "NewsHour."

    Appreciate you.

  • Nicol Turner Lee:

    Thank you.

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