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Senate Democrats confront ‘digital divide’ in new bill

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It’s been a key campaign policy for Sen. Klobuchar

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On Wednesday, a group of Senate Democrats introduced a bill in their latest effort to help close the “digital divide” and fund state and local broadband deployment projects.

The Digital Equity Act of 2019, introduced by Sens. Tina Smith (D-MN), Patty Murray (D-WA), and 2020 presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), would create two new grant programs aimed at building equal access to telecommunications technologies, primarily in underserved rural areas across America.

The first grant fund would be an annual $120 million program that would fund the creation of comprehensive “digital equity plans” individualized for states to help determine the best course of action to provide access in their communities. The second would create a separate $120 million competitive grant program to support “digital equity projects” undertaken by groups and coalitions in order to increase access.

For years, lawmakers and federal officials at agencies like the Federal Communications Commission have been investigating ways to encourage internet service providers like AT&T and Verizon to deploy high-speed broadband infrastructure to rural areas. Deploying broadband in more rural parts of the country is often costly and difficult to do. The FCC’s Universal Service Fund is responsible for providing subsidies to ISPs to encourage them to deploy infrastructure in these areas, but recent studies have determined that they’ve done little to increase access.

The FCC and ISPs have been dinged repeatedly for inaccurate broadband access maps that suggest an entire ZIP code is covered when only one home within it is served. There have been other pieces of legislation introduced to fix the maps as well.

“As we rely more on technology in our everyday lives, we have to make sure that every family has access to broadband, regardless of their zip code,” Klobuchar said in a statement. “This legislation will help close the digital divide and bring high-speed internet to communities across the county.”

If approved, this legislation would direct the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) within the Commerce Department to study the results of the new funding and provide “policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels with detailed information about which projects are most effective.”

According to the press release, a companion bill will also be introduced in the House of Representatives, but it’s unclear who will be sponsoring it in the body and when it will be released.

“Broadband is the infrastructure of the 21st Century—it isn’t just nice, it’s necessary if we’re going to build an economy that works for everyone,” Smith said. “This bill represents a positive step forward in that direction, ensuring that traditionally overlooked communities are not left behind in our efforts to provide affordable and reliable internet service to all Minnesotans and other Americans.”

Klobuchar has already made broadband deployment a key policy issue for her 2020 campaign. Last month, she announced that if she were elected president, she would create a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan that would, in part, require every American household to have high-speed broadband access by 2022.