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Democrats are pushing a $40 billion plan to bring the best Internet access to rural America

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) is among those backing the rural broadband proposal. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

The Democratic Party is making high-speed Internet access a new plank in its economic agenda as it tries to regain trust among middle-class Americans in the country's heartland.

Democratic lawmakers are calling for $40 billion in new federal funding for infrastructure projects for rural and tribal areas and other regions, whose access to fast, affordable broadband has lagged behind that of dense, urban areas. The proposal, unveiled Thursday, would have Internet providers compete for the right to build out the networks. Also local governments and cooperatives would be eligible for funding, according to a party white paper on the matter.

Drawing parallels to the 1930s-era push for nationwide electricity, Democrats say the plan would benefit farmers, medical patients and students in the most remote and underserved areas.

“The electricity of 2017 is high-speed Internet,” the white paper reads.

The effort suggests Democrats are seeking to turn Internet access into a campaign issue in upcoming midterm races. By incorporating rural broadband into the party's overarching “Better Deal” economic plan, the “digital divide” is gaining a prominence that has rarely been seen before in the party's platform.

“The way we speak in plain-speaking West Virginia, this is a really good deal,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) at a Capitol news conference Thursday. “All of you who've come from urban areas, you take this for granted.”

But Democrats are likely to face competition for the mantle of Internet-access champion. Some Republicans have made spreading Internet access far and wide a key priority. Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, undertook a multistate tour this year of areas that he said are in desperate need of connectivity.

“If you live in rural America, there’s a better than 1-in-4 chance that you lack access to fixed high-speed broadband at home, compared to a 1-in-50 probability in our cities,” Pai wrote in a reflection on his trip in the summer.

Although Pai is a political appointee, not an elected official, he has argued for the Trump administration to include broadband as part of the White House's infrastructure proposal — a commitment Trump vowed to make during a speech in July in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Tech companies have recently begun to develop their own solutions to the rural broadband gap, with Microsoft announcing this year a plan to devote unused TV airwaves for wireless data. And firms, such as OneWeb and SpaceX, have explored the idea of beaming Internet access to earth from low-orbiting satellites.

Some policy analysts say that Democrats have too long ignored Internet access as a rural issue that could win them votes, thinking of it instead as a “high-tech” issue for the affluent.

“If you actually get out to Trump country and talk to folks, you will discover that they are angry and frustrated and pissed off that the companies won't serve them (because it is too expensive to provide service) and won't let them deploy their own networks,” wrote Harold Feld, senior vice president at the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, in a Facebook post this week.

In an email, Feld added Thursday that Democratic outreach on rural broadband could break the partisan deadlock gripping much of the country.

“Traditionally, rural Republicans have been eager to use the tools of government to bring essential services to rural America,” he said. “If this helps pressure rural Republicans to break with the anti-government mantra and return to traditional bipartisan approaches to bringing service to rural America, so much the better.”