In Congress, both parties finally agree that the United States has fallen too far behind on providing high-speed internet and that action is necessary to connect millions of Americans.
But in typical Washington fashion, how to solve the problem has become a point of contention.
Fortunately, room for compromise is great, and Congress should work to find the middle ground for the benefit of the country.
The House recently passed a $100 billion “universal fiber broadband plan” with votes coming down almost entirely along party lines. The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, introduced by Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., and co-sponsored by Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Pa., would create an $80 billion fiber infrastructure program run by a new “Office of Internet Connectivity and Growth” that would coordinate broadband deployment in all 50 states.
The remaining $20 billion would facilitate other projects, such as improving remote learning capabilities for low-income students and establishing digital inclusion projects for organizations and local communities.
Advocates for the Democrats’ proposal point to the legislation’s potential to both provide thousands of jobs and end the digital divide that has plagued rural and low-income communities throughout America. The Federal Communications Commission has estimated that 14 million Americans are without internet access and 25 million are without reliable high-speed broadband service.
But that figure is likely an underestimate because the FCC data is based on census blocks, not households. A 2019 study by Microsoft puts the number of people without broadband service closer to 163 million.
Republicans also have put forward plans to address the issue. Sens. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Marsha Blackburn, D-Tenn., recently introduced an internet access expansion bill that allocates $6 billion for broadband. A separate plan, introduced by Mr. Wicker and Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., lacks dollar figures but promises funding and “regulatory relief” for telecommunications companies.
The gulf between the Democratic and Republican proposals is vast — the Republicans’ $6 billion would barely cover the Democrats’ plan for improving remote learning capabilities, let alone expand broadband throughout the entire nation.
But, if there is a silver lining to the disparity between the proposals, it is that there is ample room for compromise. Clyburn and Wicker, along with other engaged colleagues, should collaborate on legislation that bridges the partisan divide, delivering modern internet infrastructure to all Americans, including those who live between the coasts, and creating thousands of jobs in the process.