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President Biden Turns to Kamala Harris to Lead Efforts to Close the Digital Divide

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Vice President Kamala Harris appears as President Joe Biden speaks during a joint session of Congress in the US Capitol on April 21, 2021, where Biden announced that he would put her in charge of leading efforts to bridge the digital divide.

Jim Watson / Getty Images

President Joe Biden has put Vice President Kamala Harris in charge of his initiative to bridge the digital divide, signaling his seriousness in ensuring that all Americans have access to affordable high-speed Internet.

During his first speech at a joint session of Congress, Biden said Wednesday that the vice president would lead his effort to expand broadband availability across the country. Biden’s plan includes making broadband more affordable for millions of low-income Americans.

“It will help our children and businesses succeed in the 21st century economy,” Biden said. “And I’m asking the vice president to lead this effort, if she does, because I know it will be done.”

Biden’s decision to put Harris in charge is a sign that the White House sees broadband as a top priority. “It shows that the President considers closing the digital divide to be of the utmost importance,” said Gigi Sohn, a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute of Technology and Policy and a former adviser to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler.

Biden’s plan calls for spending $ 100 billion to expand broadband in rural communities where access does not yet exist and to help make broadband more affordable across the country. Although the proposed spending represents only a small fraction of the total $ 2 trillion in spending that Biden wants Congress to allocate for his infrastructure plan, the politics and political ambitions around the issue are huge.

“Broadband will be a fundamental part of our infrastructure of the future,” he said. New Street Research analyst Blair Levin, who led the effort to create President Barack Obama’s 2010 National Broadband Plan. Levin explained that in addition to the obvious benefits of broadband for education, healthcare, and job training, it will also be transformative for what we consider to be traditional infrastructure, such as bridges, highways, and public transportation, which will be equipped with an Internet connection. sensors and other “smart” technology.

“For the public, broadband represents the infrastructure of the future, rather than an improved highway,” Levin said.

Closing the digital divide

The digital divide is a problem that stubborn policy makers for decades. Despite the billions of dollars the federal government spends each year to connect more Americans, there are still at least 19 million Americans who do not have access to broadband, according to the FCC. That number is likely underestimated, the agency admits, given that the maps the government uses to determine who has service and who is not extremely inaccurate.

Although policymakers have spoken about the issue for years, the issue has taken on a new urgency over the past year, as the pandemic and the resulting lockdown provided a stark reminder that having adequate bandwidth is no longer a luxury. As schools and offices in the US were closed, the Internet has become as necessary to everyday life as electricity and running water.

Many experts also point out that closing the digital divide is not just about getting broadband access to rural communities that lack it. It’s also about digital equity and making sure communities that have historically been red-flagged and excluded from high-speed access get it. It also means ensuring that broadband service is affordable for all Americans, regardless of whether they live in rural parts of the country or in urban or suburban areas.

During his Bell, Biden said he would expand broadband to all Americans. Biden’s campaign promised $ 20 billion for rural broadband infrastructure for wired and wireless networks to help bring Internet access to areas where it simply doesn’t exist now. He also promised to include help for local municipalities looking to build their own broadband networks.

Congress has already been allocating funds to address the digital divide since the pandemic began more than a year ago. Half a dozen states used federal funds from the CARES Act, passed last spring, to help fund broadband infrastructure projects. Mississippi was one of those states, Allocate $ 65 million of your CARES Act funds to grants for electric cooperatives., which used the money to accelerate the development of gigabit speed broadband service on fiber optic infrastructure.

The funds allocated by Congress in the December COVID relief bill are now used to provide a $ 50 / month subsidy low-income people to pay for broadband service. More money allocated for broadband as part of COVID relief legislation enacted by Biden in March.

Harris’s experience as a California attorney general, and her time as a US senator from the same state, could make her an effective steward on this matter, Levin said. His work on privacy issues, as well as his connections with influencers in the tech industry it could be beneficial for policy development.

“Whether we’re talking about connecting rural America or making sure broadband is affordable for low-income people in rural America and in cities, she has had a combination of experiences in California that can be really helpful in bringing together the right policies and the right policies to close the digital divide, “said Levin.

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