Infrastructure, conjuring as makes pictures of potholes and rusty water pipes, often overlooked; politicians would rather be associated with ribbon cutting than system maintenance. Paradoxically, that has meant that the big leaps in American infrastructure often come from moments of great deprivation: the greater the crisis, the greater the investment possible. The Great Depression led to the New Deal, which established the Federal Housing Administration and brought electricity to rural America; The Great Recession led to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which directly funded improvements to 2,700 bridges and 42,000 miles of highways.
In the 1930s, modernizing the country meant electricity. In the 2020s, it means broadband. “Our economy evolves and changes,” says Todd Schmit, associate professor of applied economics and management at Cornell University, “and now it’s really necessary to think about broadband in an infrastructure space.” The digital divide is acute in the United States: Census Bureau data shows that broadband access is concentrated in cities and in the Northeast, Florida, and the West Coast. In rural areas and the South, West, and Midwest, far fewer Americans have access. In the south, 111 counties have broadband subscription rates equal to or less than 55 percent. The divide is often stark even within a state: In Virginia counties adjacent to Washington and Richmond, 85 percent of households have broadband; counties in the center of the state have less than 65 percent of subscribed households. According to research from BroadbandNow, most Alaska counties do not have broadband access; in Mississippi and West Virginia, less than 60 percent of households have broadband access. A 2019 Arizona State University study found that nearly one in five tribal reservation residents did not have internet access at home.
All of this was true before the pandemic, but when Americans were suddenly forced to work, learn, socialize, and seek health care online, the disparity in access became apparent, so obvious that lawmakers had no choice but to address it. . The CARES Act opened the tap just a bit, allocating $ 100 million in grants for broadband in rural areas. In December 2020, the Consolidated Appropriations Act established more than $ 1.5 billion in broadband grants, including nearly $ 1 billion for tribes, who face some of the worst Internet access in the country. The American Rescue Plan included $ 20.4 billion exclusively for broadband access, and awarded states and localities about $ 388 billion in flexible funds that can be used for broadband. Across the country, this money is already preparing projects to address digital disparities: satellite connectivity for remote tribes in Alaska, a grant program in rural Colorado, last-mile broadband deployment programs in Virginia, installation of fiber cables in Arizona, improved outdoor connectivity in Georgia.
The $ 1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, signed into law on November 15, will allow states to tap into Covid-related funds. The CARES Act and the ARP kept localities and businesses moving forward rather than backing down during the pandemic; The infrastructure bill, which includes $ 312 billion for transportation, $ 65 billion for broadband and $ 108 billion for the power grid, takes a considerable additional step in that direction. But none of the funding sources include the long-term investment necessary for sustained progress.
Let’s take broadband construction as a key example: of the $ 65 billion allocated for broadband in the recent infrastructure bill, the largest part, $ 45 billion, is for installing broadband, compared to $ 17 billion. million for ongoing access and grants. “We are going to invest heavily in infrastructure and capital expenditures to build this system, but then we need to provide some subsidized assistance annually along the way, to sustain it in the long term,” says Schmit. “If you can build it, and then they get things going and everyone gets broadband, and in five years everyone is bankrupt, what have we solved?” The billions of federal funds can generate access to broadband, but offer no guarantee to maintain it, which is especially crucial for the rural broadband access that this legislation attempts to address. Schmit studies broadband access in upstate New York areas with fewer than 10 subscribers per mile, where offering service is often not profitable.
“If we can agree that broadband access is a public good, to educate our children, to access health care, to expand business opportunities, there should be a defensible basis for government assistance in financing the operations of those programs, “he says. . “But I think it’s a harder story to tell.”
Charley locke is a writer, editor, and producer of stories who often works on articles for The New York Times for Kids. Christopher Payne is a photographer specializing in American architecture and industry. He has documented many industrial processes for the magazine, including one of America’s last pencil factories, Martin guitars and The Times printing house itself.