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Opinion A smart use for $50 billion of covid relief funds: Broadband

President Biden conducts a virtual swearing-in ceremony for members of his new administration via Zoom at the White House on Jan. 20.
President Biden conducts a virtual swearing-in ceremony for members of his new administration via Zoom at the White House on Jan. 20. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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WHEN PRESIDENT BIDEN asked what critics would have him cut from his covid relief bill, he got plenty of answers about reducing the $510 billion in aid to state and local governments — including from us. Now, some moderate Senate Democrats are suggesting a middle way: Earmark $50 billion of those funds for broadband investment.

The idea, spearheaded by Sens. Angus King (I-Maine) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), is a political crowd-pleaser more likely to attract cross-aisle support than most big spending. The funds, likely in the form of grants, would address the immediate emergency of millions of Americans going Internet-less in a time when being online, whether for work, school or telehealth, is more important than ever. The money would also serve the longer-term effort of connecting the entire nation for the post-pandemic world — estimated to cost as much as $80 billion for the wiring, and another pretty penny for providing high speeds to the low-income.

The proposal would create separate sets of grants to address the twin challenges of achieving universal connection: availability (whether there’s the technology in your area to get you hooked up to the Web) and affordability (whether you can pay to take advantage of it). States can respond to both of these problems on an immediate basis — and indeed, with funding from the Cares Act, most of them have. Some have purchased Internet-enabled devices for low-income students, or subsidized families in buying plans. Some have focused on hooking homes to existing infrastructure, and some far along in their own planning initiatives have put funds toward bigger “shovel-ready” projects.

States could use more money to continue these efforts today, and it’s wise of lawmakers to focus at least some of the funds they offer on what will put the most people online most quickly. Yet stopgap solutions relying on hotspots and satellite signals will eventually sputter if they’re not paired with bolder fiber-laying initiatives that will outlast this disease. The areas that are unserved or underserved today are unserved and underserved for a reason: The population is too scattered, or too poor, for companies to expect any return on investment. The government can create incentives that firms currently lack so that they will serve everyone and serve them well; it must also apply the scrutiny necessary to ensure firms follow through on funded promises, avoiding wires to nowhere and “solutions” doomed to obsolescence.

Is this really a coronavirus relief measure, or is it a question of infrastructure? The answer is yes: The senators are trying to tackle a connectivity crisis that the pandemic has revealed and then exacerbated — addressing problems that are particularly potent today, and hoping in the process to ameliorate them for years to come. The full relief bill may still be too costly, but it makes more sense to spend money on an acknowledged need than to simply hand states a slush fund that is bigger than their pandemic-provoked shortfalls. “Look at it as a down payment on an infrastructure bill,” Mr. King told us.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Biden asked what could be cut from his covid relief package. Here are some ideas.

Max Boot: Biden keeps looking to the 2009 stimulus debate. It’s not the right lesson for this relief package.

The Post’s View: Congress needs to focus its covid relief bill — on covid relief

The Post’s View: Here’s what Biden can do right now to get more Americans on the Internet

Katrina vanden Heuvel: America’s digital divide is an emergency