President Joseph Biden signed the bipartisan infrastructure bill on Nov. 15, 2021, after a series of delays in Congress that ended up putting a media spotlight on Democratic Party conflicts,election loss blame games, approval ratings and polling numbers. Now it’s time for us to insist on public discussion of why this bill matters to Georgians and how it will be fairly implemented:
The bipartisan infrastructure bill includes unprecedented, historic investments to tackle all these challenges, among others, across the nation. Consider this:
We’d be naïve to pretend a single funding bill can reverse the damage from decades of transportation policy choices rooted in systemic racism, or fully eliminate the newer racial inequities of the digital age. But dollar for dollar, this is the most significant – and progressive – federal effort ever conceived to confront these hard truths and build the infrastructure for a more just future in Georgia and across the country.
The bill’s passage, however, isn’t the end of the story. A thicket of obstacles – waste, mismanagement, and apathy among them — still stand between us and the full realization of this bill’s potential.
Take broadband as one example. The $42 billion targeted to bring high-speed networks to unserved rural communities is cause for celebration, but celebration will turn to frustration if these dollars are instead hijacked to build duplicative projects in wealthier suburbs that already have fast internet service.
Broadband contractors – and politicians – will both have incentives to reroute these subsidies for projects in denser, more lucrative (and vote-rich) neighborhoods. But subsidizing new networks in communities that already have them does nothing to close the digital divide. Previous federal broadband projects have failed precisely because of this lack of discipline; we can’t repeat those mistakes this time.
We’ll also have a big hill to climb getting eligible families enrolled in the game-changing Affordable Connectivity Program. More than 3 in 10 Georgians will qualify for that new benefit, which offers households up to $30 a month off home internet service. This stipend will effectively make broadband service free to every Georgian earning less than 200% of the poverty limit.
That’s a big deal. But we should all remember that when President Obama passed the Affordable Care Act in 2010, it took years of advertising campaigns, community organizing, and door-to-door outreach to get eligible families signed up. We’ll need a comparable effort now to get everyone connected to broadband.
The infrastructure bill includes $2.75 billion to fund these outreach and enrollment campaigns. Cities and states can also use funds awarded earlier this year by the American Rescue Plan to bolster the effort. The key here is working through community-based organizations that already have established relationships and trust.
Spent wisely, the infrastructure bill’s broadband investments will dramatically expand digital equality and opportunity throughout Georgia. More families will gain access to online learning, telehealth, and remote work opportunities.
We’ll be more fully enfranchised digital citizens – and our state and country will be stronger for it.
Richard Rose is president of the Atlanta Branch of the NAACP.