They also anticipate that demand will persist even as coronavirus cases subside. Bennet said the funding is urgently needed to support the hybrid school and work environments that are likely to become more common as Americans begin to resume normal activities.
“I think it’s very exciting as long as everyone in the country has access to broadband,” he said. “If they don’t, we’re going to see the digital divide creating a greater divide than what already exists between kids living in poverty and more affluent kids.”
The bill, called the Broadband Reform and Investment to Drive Growth in the Economy Act, signals the importance some are attaching to Internet connectivity amid broader negotiations over infrastructure spending. Portman is among 10 senators brokering a bipartisan deal to improve the country’s roads, bridges, pipes and broadband infrastructure.
The BRIDGE Act aims to bring networks to rural and tribal areas that have traditionally lacked basic infrastructure for broadband, while expanding funding to ensure that low-income people in cities can afford to get online.
It would prioritize building what lawmakers are calling “future proof” networks, requiring in most instances for the new networks to support upload and download speeds of at least 100 Mbps, to ensure they do not quickly become outdated.
Lawmakers also want to make sure that there’s greater competition in the market, giving people more options and potentially lower Internet prices. The bill would lift bans throughout the country on municipal broadband networks — potentially allowing new entrants to compete against big Internet service providers.
The proposal comes at a critical moment in the infrastructure negotiations, as Portman and nine other largely moderate lawmakers try to sell their $1 trillion, five-year package. Some congressional Democrats have said they want the package to be greater in scope and have started laying the groundwork to proceed without Republicans, through a process called reconciliation.
The BRIDGE Act would allocate significantly less funding than Democrats initially sought to address broadband. Bennet said the $40 billion should be just one part of the funding that lawmakers dedicate to broadband amid infrastructure talks. It’s much less than the $100 billion that President Biden called for in his American Jobs Plan, and it’s smaller than the $65 billion Republicans said they were willing to direct toward broadband investments.
There have been other bipartisan proposals to address broadband gaps in recent weeks, but they have been much smaller. Last week, Portman and King joined Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) in introducing legislation that would allocate more than $1 billion to local Internet projects.
Democrats have long made bringing more Americans online a key policy priority, and Republicans have been concerned about the lack of access in rural areas. Even before the pandemic began, there were broad worries about the digital divide. At least 18 million Americans lacked reliable connectivity, federal regulators found in a report last year, cautioning at the time that the number might be higher.
The BRIDGE Act was first introduced by Bennet last year, but it has undergone changes to address some of the challenges highlighted by the pandemic. It was initially a $30 billion proposal. The increase is intended primarily to offer more assistance to low-income families in urban areas.
The proposal comes after lawmakers made historic investments in bringing Americans online during the pandemic. Lawmakers allocated more than $3 billion toward the Emergency Broadband Benefit, a Federal Communications Commission program that provides $50 discounts for families suffering financial hardship to pay their Internet bills. The program will expire when the funding runs out. The FCC reported that more than 2.5 million households have accessed the program, but Washington Post readers have expressed frustrations about how Internet service providers have handled enrollment.
Lawmakers also allocated $7 billion to help schools and libraries bring more students and teachers online.
King says that funding should be just the start.
“The American Rescue Plan included a historic down payment on broadband infrastructure to confront this challenge, but a larger investment is needed to ensure that no Americans are left behind in our increasingly-digital society,” King said in a statement.