December 1, 2021

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U.S. infrastructure bill aims to close the digital divide

Along with allotting money for roads, bridges, clean energy-based transportation, airports and ports, the U.S. infrastructure bill sets aside $65 billion for broadband infrastructure deployment — one of the bill’s most significant IT impacts.

The legislation, recently approved by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden, was designed to give Americans access to high-speed internet at a lower cost. Its goal is to close the so-called digital divide, a growing gap between individuals with access to modern communications technology and those without access — often poor, rural, elderly and other underprivileged communities.

Alan Pelz-Sharpe, founder of analyst firm Deep Analysis, said the bipartisan infrastructure deal is an important one for IT and digital business.

I would argue it should have gone much further, but the $65 billion allotted to high-speed infrastructure is significant.
Alan Pelz-SharpeFounder, Deep Analysis

“I would argue it should have gone much further, but the $65 billion allotted to high-speed infrastructure is significant,” he said.

Breaking down the $65B investment

Pelz-Sharpe said the nationwide push toward cloud and mobile work due to the COVID-19 pandemic has further prompted interest in ensuring that all Americans have internet access. Still, the underlying internet infrastructure has not had the investment necessary to support and drive such a transformation, he said.

While roughly 90% of Americans have access to the internet, the speed, quality and cost of that service varies widely, he added.

“Many rural areas are underserved; some remain essentially off the grid,” he said. “Equally, the high cost has meant many are unable to afford it.”

Susan Welsh de Grimaldo, an analyst at Gartner, said the U.S. infrastructure bill addresses three essential areas: availability of broadband, affordability of broadband and ability to use broadband.

To address availability, the bill allots $42.45 billion in state grants to provide low-cost broadband services to low-income households. To further address affordability, the bill includes $14 billion for an “Affordable Connectivity Program” to continue a monthly subsidy for internet service to qualifying low-income households. The U.S. launched the program early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill also includes $2.75 billion for projects such as online skills education for seniors or others lacking the skill to use digital services.

Welsh de Grimaldo said beyond funds, undertaking these projects will require a significant amount of time and investment to accomplish.

“It will take a lot of hard work, collaboration, creativity, transparency and oversight to ensure that funding really does equate to solving the digital divide and provide a boost to productivity to enterprises and communities that have been unserved or underserved with broadband,” she said.

Where the U.S. stands on internet access

Though the U.S. infrastructure bill’s $65 billion investment is significant, Pelz-Sharpe said the U.S. has a long way to go to catch up to Europe and Asia when it comes to broadband access.

“One of the first things Americans notice when they travel to Asia or Europe is how much cheaper and faster internet access is,” he said. “The fact is, we as a nation are lagging.”

In comparison, Pelz-Sharpe said government policy in the EU, U.K., China and South Korea has focused on providing high-speed, affordable internet access and it is viewed as a critical public service. Internet access wasn’t viewed as critical in the U.S. until recently, Pelz-Sharpe said.

Pelz-Sharpe said he’s also concerned with the infrastructure bill’s silence on 5G.

“It’s not clear from the bill that the growing disparity and lag of adoption and availability of 5G compared with, say, China, will be addressed at all,” he said. “It seems to be solely focused on high-speed internet. That, too, will have a major impact on our future ability to compete and evolve in growing global digital-based business activities.”

While the $65 billion investment should provide a good start, Pelz-Sharpe said he doubts it’s enough to close the growing digital divide and the “chasm” between the U.S. and other developed countries.

Welsh de Grimaldo echoed Pelz-Sharpe’s sentiment that the $65 billion investment through the U.S. infrastructure bill will not fully solve the digital divide.

“It will take months and even years to get broadband and the ability to afford and use it in the hands of those who need it in rural and tribal areas, as well as unserved or underserved people in more urban areas,” she said.

Makenzie Holland is a news writer covering big tech and federal regulation. Prior to joining TechTarget, she was a general reporter for the Wilmington StarNews and a crime and education reporter at the Wabash Plain Dealer.