As the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated, internet service has passed out of the “luxury” category to become a household necessity. Like running water or electricity, we should expect governments to construct and support infrastructure that delivers fast, reliable service to all American households.
When lockdowns kept workers out of offices and students out of schools, the internet served as a lifeline to the outside world. The lockdowns also provided a stark reminder that some 42 million Americans do not have access to broadband service — including an estimated 230,000 households in Washington.
As a bill that passed the Legislature in 2022 explains: “For too many people in both rural and urban areas, the cost of being online is unaffordable. … Building the last mile of broadband to the home is prohibitively expensive and urban areas that are home to people earning low incomes continue to face digital redlining.”
That bill focused on “digital equity,” adding to a series of statewide efforts to expand broadband service. In May, the Washington State Broadband Office announced $121 million in grants for 19 broadband construction projects.
Those efforts have been enhanced by the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed in 2021. The legislation includes $65 billion to provide affordable, high-speed internet; the law’s Broadband, Equity, Access and Development Program has provided $1.2 billion to Washington.
The BEAD Program includes an Affordable Connectivity Program that provides internet service discounts for low-income residents. During a recent visit to Seattle, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge spoke of efforts to raise awareness of the program, under which all recipients of HUD assistance are eligible for free or reduced-cost internet service. For households on tribal lands, a discount of up to $75 a month is available, and there are one-time rebates for the purchase of home computers or tablets.
The dual efforts in low-income urban areas and remote rural areas reflect the divide in internet access throughout the U.S. — and the need for more work and improved efficiency. Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, D-Skamania, has helped introduce the Rural Internet Improvement Act, designed to streamline connectivity programs. That bill and companion legislation in the Senate have been referred to committees.
“I live in rural America, and I get my internet from a radio tower,” Perez said. “Struggling to access the internet is part of everyday life for me and my community. This bipartisan bill brings us closer to ending the digital divide and making sure people can access the internet no matter where they live.”
Upon passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, some critics complained about the broad definition of “infrastructure” and the inclusion of items other than roads, bridges and airports. The legislation had support from 18 Republicans in the Senate, but only two Republicans in the House. Notably, many of those who voted against the bill have since boasted about the investments in their communities.
Such investments are essential for expanding the economy and improving the lives of all Americans, with internet infrastructure serving as one of the few areas in which urban and rural residents can find common ground. As President Joe Biden said this summer: “For today’s economy to work for everyone, internet access is just as important as electricity, or water, or other basic services.”