The pandemic proved the need for broadband access. A bill before the House can deliver that lifeline.

By Chris Roberts / For The Herald

A couple days before my mother died from complications due to covid-19, a very kind aide was able to hold a device so I could see and talk with her. The ability to see her, and interact with her for months while assisted living facilities were in lockdown, certainly did not make up for the inability to give her a hug, or kiss her on the cheek, but the technology made the situation more bearable.

For our child, school was an entirely virtual affair during the previous school year; and even today, most interactions with friends are online. For my wife and I, we teach classes entirely online, with students taking our American politics courses from locations all over the world. Without access to a high-speed internet connection, our work and social lives would not be possible.

I recognize that we are fortunate. We are on one side of the digital divide in our country and even in our state. As we saw during the pandemic, children tried to gain access by sitting outside trying to get an internet signal. And frequently we are in meetings where one of our colleagues has to drop off of Zoom because of a poor connection.

Ablout 44 percent of Americans who make less than $30,000 a year do not have internet at home — not because they don’t want it, or because the infrastructure to connect doesn’t exist where they live — but because they can’t afford it. That means that even though high-speed internet is needed for everything from basic health care to skills training, to schooling and even religious engagements, millions lack access, even though internet service providers offer entry level plans for $10 to $20 per month. The numbers are worse for people of color whose households are even less likely to have broadband service at home, threatening to leave Black, Indigenous and People of Color Americans further behind.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act addresses broadband affordability head on with $14 billion in federal funding for a game-changing program called the Affordability Connectivity Benefit (ACB) that will provide qualifying households with a $30 per month benefit that would go toward their internet bills. We know this program will help people because it extends an already highly successful program that was part of pandemic relief; and has already brought over 4.5 million households online.

Even more, the infrastructure bill provides $2.75 billion in funding for digital equity; programs that are designed to reach vulnerable communities who have traditionally had low internet adoption rates — including older Americans and low-income families — to teach them digital literacy skills and educate them on how to use the internet. Too often well-meaning government programs fail to reach the people they’re intended to help. But pairing affordability and adoption programs together in the infrastructure bill will make a real difference. This proposal not only provides the resources to get everyone connected to the internet, it makes real investments in ensuring the people who need the benefit are educated about its existence and learn how to make the most of it.

In addition to funding for broadband affordability and digital equity, the bill prioritizes expanding broadband infrastructure to truly unserved areas — predominantly rural and tribal communities — that have been promised high-speed internet for far too long. Because rural communities often have lower per capita incomes, this bill will particularly help poor rural communities that have typically lacked the infrastructure and the resources to get on line; by providing both.

If we want to close the digital divide, the House must pass the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, already adopted by the Senate. This would single-handedly bring millions of low-income folks online for good by creating a long-term program they can rely on to help pay for broadband access and creating the know-how in traditionally marginalized communities to utilize it. The federal government provides financial assistance for groceries, school lunches, housing and health care. By creating a program that will help 25 percent of the country pay for broadband, the infrastructure bill demonstrates a clear commitment to the fact that high-speed internet is just as an essential part of everyday life as food, health care and shelter. That’s why groups like the League of United Latin American Citizens and National Urban League have called for proposals that are mirrored in the infrastructure bill that help low-income folks afford access to this critical service and ensure everyone has the infrastructure and digital literacy skills needed to get online.

I was on my way to the airport when I got the call that my mother died. I wish I had more time with her, but I am grateful that I was able to connect virtually with her and see her as she said her last words of “bye” to me.

Chris Roberts serves on the Shoreline City Council.

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