Last summer, Governor Brian Kemp released a long-anticipated map of broadband availability across rural Georgia. Over half a million homes and businesses – 10 percent of our state – don’t have broadband.
And even in urban areas like Atlanta where 97% of households are wired, only 77% actually subscribe.
As with most issues, there is a racial dimension to these disparities: Nationwide, only 71% of Black families adopt broadband at home.
The late Congressman John Lewis famously said that internet access is “the civil rights issue of the 21st Century.” The Biden administration’s $2 trillion American Jobs Plan presents a plan for solving the digital divide.
Past efforts, like the broadband programs in the 2009 Recovery Act, frustratingly failed when special interests and patronage diverted federal dollars away from rural areas without broadband toward communities that already had high-speed infrastructure.
This time, Congress must get it right – and stay focused. Federal dollars should be prioritized for communities without broadband and to help the unconnected in urban areas get online.
We should build on our success. US broadband networks are faster, more resilient, and more widely available than in Europe’s advanced economies. New technologies are giving consumers more wireline and wireless choices than ever before. Public-private partnerships like Atlanta’s visionary Get Our Kids Connected initiative, and private sector low-cost programs like Comcast’s Internet Essentials and Cox’s Connect2Compete, have moved millions online with subsidies and digital training.
But we can’t just rest on these laurels and pretend the mission has been accomplished. Instead, we must build on this progress to fully get every Georgian online.
The template for success is in front of us; we just need to follow it.
For rural areas, Senators Joe Manchin and John Cornyn have introduced a bipartisan framework in Congress that can succeed where earlier efforts fell short. It drives funds to communities that don’t have broadband, invites every competent competitor and technology to compete for buildout funds, and sets a three-year deadline to get the job done. Their proposal also requires any providers receiving funds to offer a low-cost option for families in need.
Simple and elegant – and with bipartisan support, it can become law.
To attack the urban divide, we should learn the lesson of private sector initiatives that show monthly subscription discounts and free training can move huge numbers to sign up. Dozens of leading civil rights groups are calling on Congress to make permanent the new Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which gives struggling families a break of up to $50 per month off their Internet bills.
This rural-urban dual subsidy approach benefits from its elegant simplicity and ability to gain bipartisan support. Notably, it rejects a lot of outdated chattering class ideas that have failed in the past and newfangled ones that show little hope of success.
Other proposals, for example, would divert funds to get local governments into the business of building and operating broadband networks – even in communities that already have high-speed broadband. But these projects have a dismal win-loss record, as most of them end up in red ink. Others want to redefine broadband to require upstream speeds of 100Mbps, even though very few consumers use that much capacity; it’s dozens of times more bandwidth than you need for Zoom calls or virtual learning. The idea may sound innovative and futuristic at first glance, but in practice, it would be Robin Hood in reverse – allowing federal buildout dollars to be diverted from rural broadband deserts to wealthy suburbs for the broadband capacity they don’t need.
We don’t have time to waste tilting at windmills. In Oglethorpe County, for example, where half of the residents are offline, school administrators had to wire football stadiums and churches to give students living in the area’s many unconnected households access to virtual schooling during the early months of the COVID scare. Black and brown families who disproportionately lack home broadband connections lost the most ground during remote learning.
The Biden infrastructure bill offers us a chance to turn the page and write a new chapter for Georgia – one in which every community is connected to high-speed networks and every family can afford to connect to them. We know exactly which rural homes are offline. And we know exactly how to help struggling urban families get and stay connected.
Let’s focus on simple and proven approaches – not arcane and fanciful experiments – to get the job done right.
Senator Tonya P. Anderson represents Senate District 43 in the Georgia State Senate and serves as Chairwoman of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus.