No home left offline

While the long-awaited bipartisan Infrastructure and Jobs Act represents an unprecedented opportunity to close the digital divide in America, it also sets up an experiment to test the competing philosophies upon which America was built. In an era of rising political polarization, the infrastructure bill reflects an unusual point of agreement across ideology and partisanship. Policymakers from the left and the right came together to agree on the importance of strengthening America’s infrastructure. In particular,...

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While the long-awaited bipartisan Infrastructure and Jobs Act represents an unprecedented opportunity to close the digital divide in America, it also sets up an experiment to test the competing philosophies upon which America was built. In an era of rising political polarization, the infrastructure bill reflects an unusual point of agreement across ideology and partisanship. Policymakers from the left and the right came together to agree on the importance of strengthening America’s infrastructure. In particular, they agreed that we can no longer accept a digital divide that keeps nearly 23% of Americans from sending their children to school, working remotely or accessing healthcare, job training, the social safety net or critical government services.

With a goal of investing $65 billion in broadband infrastructure, affordability and adoption, Congress set the stage to dramatically accelerate progress in connecting 28.2 million households denied economic opportunity and security because they can’t access or afford broadband at home. At the same time, the structure of this historic investment, which allocates two-thirds of spending authority to states and the remainder to federal agencies and departments, sets up a true test of the most effective approach to solving problems in our federalist society, and whether a hybrid approach might prove even more effective.

The bipartisan infrastructure bill addresses the two main barriers that keep American households offline. First, $42.5 billion goes to states to connect the 7.1 million households that are offline because they do not have access to internet infrastructure.  Second, $14.2 billion goes to the Federal Communications Commission to connect the 18.1 million households, representing nearly two-thirds of the digital divide, that have access to a home broadband connection but are offline because they cannot afford to connect. Both tasks are difficult, but in five years, we will see who has connected more Americans: states or the federal government.

To be successful, both states and federal agencies and departments would be wise to learn the lessons from previous efforts to close the digital divide. First, you can’t improve what you can’t measure.  Without detailed information at the household level of who has access to a broadband connection and who has not signed up, Congress’ broadband infrastructure and affordability investments will not close the digital divide. Without good data, we will also be unable to track our progress and measure which approach has been more effective. Second, to maximize success, we need to maximize collaboration. Neither states nor the federal government has the on-the-ground resources to actually connect the unconnected. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must  build infrastructure, but nonprofits, community-based organizations, and trusted local institutions like school districts will be essential partners to reach unconnected households, convince them that new federal broadband benefits are not “too good to be true,” and help them navigate the complex process of signing up for home broadband. Finally, we need to make it easy for these on-the-ground actors to connect households by supporting them with funding, playbooks and tools, which Congress helped address with the $2.75 billion Digital Equity Act included in the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

We are not starting from scratch here. These were the same strategies that enabled EducationSuperHighway, the non-profit I founded, to close the digital divide in America’s K-12 schools. At a time when broadband had become as essential to classroom learning as chalkboards were in the past, we found that by working with both federal and state leaders, leveraging data, building a broad public-private partnership, and providing school districts with procurement and technical support, we were able to connect 47 million students in 99.3% of America’s K-12 public schools in just seven years.

The COVID-19 pandemic has painfully demonstrated that all Americans are worse off when nearly 80 million people remain unconnected at home. For the last decade, public policies worked at the pace of a digital snail, connecting households to broadband at a rate of just 1% per year. The bipartisan infrastructure bill can accelerate those efforts to Internet speed. With a targeted effort built around a successful broadband playbook that marries both state and local initiatives, we can finally close the digital divide once and for all. Along the way, we can hopefully learn whether state or federal leadership is most effective. Of course, if state and federal governments cooperate to reach a common goal, with shared data and a proven playbook, the answer may be that we can achieve extraordinary results—in this case, leaving no home left offline.

Evan Marwell is founder and CEO of EducationSuperHighway.

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