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Opinion/Commentary: Internet access boosted by bill

Opinion/Commentary: Internet access boosted by bill

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During the 1930s, the federal government realized that the only way to bring prosperity and opportunity to rural America was to build the infrastructure to bring electricity to the country. The Rural Electrification Act was the answer and changed life forever in rural areas.

We still have structural issues that divide our nation. Nowhere did this become more evident throughout the COVID-19 pandemic than in access to high-speed internet and in this country’s failure to get all Americans — especially rural communities — connected to this vital resource. Thankfully, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act gives our country a real chance to make progress.

Now more than ever, Americans are reliant upon internet access to go about their daily lives. From remote work to telehealth to virtual learning, every American at every stage in life needs reliable internet access to stay connected to the modern world.

Unfortunately, millions of Americans across the nation still need access to this necessity for three primary reasons.

The first is that they live in areas that do not have broadband infrastructure. The problem is acute in rural communities where around 25% of households lack access to high-speed internet.

The second reason is affordability. Despite living in a community that has broadband infrastructure, some families simply cannot afford the cost — even though most internet service providers offer entry-level plans for $10-20 per month.

Third, folks, particularly those who come from communities that fall into the previous two categories, do not have the digital literacy skills to get online.

All of these issues exist here in Virginia, and closing the digital divide means addressing them head on.

Thankfully, the infrastructure bill addresses these critical problems and will bring about the most meaningful progress in closing the digital divide in Virginia in decades. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act prioritizes bringing broadband to truly unserved communities. The commonwealth will receive — at a minimum — $100 million to help bring high-speed internet coverage to the over 473,000 people in Virginia who currently lack it.

I cannot overstate how much of a game-changer this is for folks who are struggling to work remotely, run their business online or keep their kids connected when schools go remote.

Beyond access, this legislation addresses broadband affordability. Under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, over 1.9 million people in Virginia will be eligible for the Affordability Connectivity Benefit, which will help low-income families afford internet access. This will expand on what was temporary pandemic relief and turn it into a $30 per month benefit, building on a highly successful program that has helped millions afford access. The federal government provides financial assistance for other essential needs, such as health care and groceries. By making this program permanent, the bill accurately reflects the essential nature of high-speed internet to everyday life and ensures every American can afford access.

Just as importantly, the infrastructure bill also includes $2.75 billion to fund the new Digital Equity Act. This provision would provide digital skills training and education to low-income communities, improve online accessibility for people with disabilities and help fund programs so rural communities can address their broadband needs. In other words, it helps make sure that the people who most desperately need the federal government’s help getting online whether they struggle with access or affordability — the very people targeted in the broader legislative package — know exactly how they can get online and utilize the power of the internet.

Despite the emergence of the internet as a daily part of our lives decades ago, fast and reliable internet access continues to be defined by where you live or what you earn. While we have made progress, the already significant gap between those with internet access and those without will continue to widen if we do not act.

We finally have an opportunity to close the digital divide and build back better for everyone. But it will happen only if our elected representatives in the House of Representatives understand not only the impact, but the urgency, of broadband inequity, and pass the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act so that we can get every American connected now.

State Sen. Creigh Deeds represents Virginia’s 25th District, which includes Charlottesville, Nelson County, much of Albemarle County along with other western Virginia cities and counties.

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