WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration takes first steps to release $45 billion to ensure every US resident has access to high-speed internet by about 2028, inviting governors and other leaders on Friday to begin the application process.
Minister of Commerce Gina Raimondo oversees distribution, saying universal broadband internet access would be comparable to the electrification of rural America in the 1930s, acknowledging that the Internet is a utility that US residents need to function in today’s economy.
“There are more than 30 million Americans who don’t have the Internet,” Raimondo said. ‘And in this day and age without fast internet you can’t go to school, you can’t go to the doctor, you can’t do simple things. Think about how many times in a day you google something or go online.”
The funding is part of the $65 billion for broadband in the $1 trillion infrastructure package that President Joe Biden signed into law last November. That bipartisan package is one of the policy outcomes the Democratic president is trying to sell to voters ahead of the midterm electionsthough it’s unclear how much the message will resonate when much of the country is focused on high inflationcultural differences and political identity.
Former President Donald Trump has dismissed infrastructure spending as “fake,” even though broadband spending was one of his own priorities. His agricultural department said in 2020 it had invested $744 million in internet connectivity in rural areas, an amount that was meaningful but insufficient.
Raimondo travels to Durham, North Carolina. She will announce that governors can send letters of intent to receive the broadband funding, which will come from three programs totaling $45 billion. Each state would then receive $5 million to help consult residents and write its plan.
The Department of Commerce recognizes that Internet needs vary by state. The money can be used to build fiber optic cables, build out Wi-Fi hotspots, or even lower monthly charges where price is the biggest challenge. Following the administration’s announcement Monday that it would provide a $30 monthly grant for low-income households, Raimondo noted that states could use the extra money from these programs to make the service free for some users.
The allocations would also be affected this fall by the Federal Communications Commission, which is releasing new maps that indicate where people have no internet or are underserved. Governors and other leaders would then have six months to use this data to shape their final applications. States and eligible areas will receive a guaranteed minimum of $100 million, although the average payment would be closer to $800 million, according to rough estimates from the Department of Commerce.
The goal is to have states establish a five-year timeline to provide full Internet access while ensuring affordable Internet access and promoting competition among providers. The federal government hasn’t defined what qualifies as affordable because that can be different across the country based on the cost of living.
The trade secretary said she saw the impact universal internet availability could have on people during her travels.
She said she spoke to a widower in rural South Carolina whose late wife could only see a doctor regularly via telehealth, but they didn’t have a high-speed connection. Raimondo spoke to a college student in Atlanta with a full-time job who had to drive back to campus for the internet to do her homework, leaving the college student so exhausted that she fell asleep at the wheel and suffered two car accidents.
“You’re closing the digital divide and the opportunity gap,” Raimondo said, “and we’re delivering on the American promise to give everyone a chance at a good job, education and health care.”