- House Democrats have introduced a bill, sponsored by Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-CA, that would create grant programs to promote digital literacy and training to help close the digital divide.
- The Digital Equity Act of 2019 would create a $125 million annual grant program administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) for states to create their own digital equity plans. The bill would also create a separate $125 million annual grant program to support digital inclusion projects on the local level.
- Additionally, the bill would direct the NTIA to evaluate projects and offer guidance to local, state and federal policymakers about what projects are most effective at increasing broadband adoption in underconnected populations.
According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), 21.3 million Americans lack fixed broadband at speeds of at least 25 Mbps/3 Mbps. While that is often discussed as a rural issue, since wide swaths of rural America lack broadband, the digital divide is just as stark within many cities. In Detroit, for example, nearly 57% of residents lack broadband access; the number is 49% in Memphis, TN.
Closing that divide requires more than just an infrastructure push, said Angelina Panettieri, principal associate for technology and communication at the National League of Cities (NLC).
"One thing that can be missing with an infrastructure focus is there's not really a mechanism to address equity," Panettieri told Smart Cities Dive. "Affordability is a big stumbling block, and that's hard to target through an infrastructure program. It doesn't help anyone if we pour a lot of money into a federal broadband program that people can't afford."
NLC has pushed for the Digital Equity Act, in large part because it allows for more local control and can foster the state- and local-level programs that have been successful to get new populations online. Many cities have focused on education or equipment donation programs in addition to installing new wire; the grant programs funded by the bill would support such efforts. The fact that the NTIA would be tasked with evaluating success stories would also help those city-level initiatives.
The House bill — which has a Senate companion from Sen. Patty Murray, D-WA — is one of several federal efforts targeted at broadband infrastructure. The White House has proposed a multi-agency American Broadband Initiative strategy to expand broadband access, including $600 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. House Democrats included $40 billion for broadband in the LIFT America Act (Leading Infrastructure For Tomorrow's America Act) infrastructure proposal, and Democratic candidates including Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden have released broadband strategies.