- A group of House Democrats on Thursday introduced the Leading Infrastructure For Tomorrow's America Act (LIFT America Act), legislation that would invest almost $94 billion to expand access to broadband internet to underserved communities.
- The bill would allocate $80 billion to deploy high-speed broadband nationwide by funding connections to unserved and underserved areas in rural, suburban and urban parts of the country. It would also allocate $5 billion for a new low-interest financing program for broadband infrastructure, and $9.3 billion to programs that help broadband affordability and equity.
- The funds represent an expansion of the bill’s previous version introduced in May 2019, which allocated $40 billion for broadband deployment, $5 billion in low-interest infrastructure financing and aimed to expand access to high-speed internet to 98% of the country.
The legislation also contains provisions to fight climate change, protect the environment and invest in healthcare infrastructure, but the investment in broadband internet is particularly timely as the country marks one year of remote work, education and medical appointments amid the pandemic. The past year has amplified the growing digital divide, highlighting the urgent need for elected leaders to invest in equitable service.
One way the federal government will support low-income residents is through the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which would receive $6 billion to provide a discount of up to $50 a month on broadband for eligible households. The FCC officially established the program late last month, having previously relied on the underutilized Lifeline program last year.
The bill would also focus on distributing funds to deploy broadband in underserved areas, an issue the FCC has tried to get under control after its Broadband Deployment Reports were criticized for vastly overstating service in some areas. Congress tried to find a legislative fix when it passed the Broadband DATA Act last year, directing the FCC to collect more granular data from wired, fixed-wireless, satellite and mobile broadband providers.
But the FCC suggested it may take until 2022 for new maps to be available, drawing a furious response from Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who said in a letter that inaccurate mapping “would create additional delays to broadband deployment for millions of Americans.”
Under the LIFT America Act, the FCC would distribute $60 billion of the funds through a competitive bidding process and allocate the rest to states to fund broadband deployment processes of their own. It would also prohibit state governments from enforcing laws that prevent local governments, cooperative and public-private partnerships from delivering their own broadband service. Municipally run internet has gained in popularity in some cities, but often been stymied by state-level legislation blocking it.
In a Facebook post, House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn, D-SC, said internet access "will have the same dramatic impact on rural communities as the rural electrification efforts in the last century." And with the pandemic heightening the importance of remote operations and living arrangements outside cities, experts say it is important to deploy broadband as widely as possible.
"I think there's going to be people moving out of the big urban areas in the U.S. and looking for places to live that are less crowded, that have good connectivity," said Jane Coffin, senior vice president of Internet Growth at the Internet Society, a nonprofit that advocates for improved internet access. "Every mayor should be right now building out an open network to get as many people connected at better prices."