Federal and state governments have been working for decades to close the digital divide—the gap between those who have access to broadband and those who do not. In recent years, governments have ramped up their efforts, with spending and the number of government programs skyrocketing: there are now 133 programs administered by at least 15 agencies.
Neither Congress nor the agencies really know where the funds should be allocated, largely because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is still finalizing new maps designed to display communities that have or do not have access to broadband. Most federal funding vehicles, including the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), distribute taxpayer funds to states. Unlike prior federal programs, though, the IIJA allows the National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA) to place conditions on fund distribution, along with allocating some funds to support adoption programs and more traditional deployment programs.
New technologies will also help close the divide. As telecommunications companies build out 5G wireless networks, mobile technology capacity and speeds will offer viable alternatives to traditional wireline services. Companies such as Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper are developing or have launched satellite broadband networks that offer greater speeds and lower latency than older satellite technologies. These technologies are increasing competition for consumers and giving policymakers additional tools to close the divide.
Most work to close the divide is occuring at the state level. In recent years, legislators have introduced hundreds of proposals to reform broadband grant programs, while at least 44 states have active grant programs. Reforms range from programs to mapping broadband availability within the state to methods of holding grantees accountable for progress.
Congress and states can improve upon current efforts by coordinating broadband efforts and focusing on connecting those who lack access. Progress will require addressing multi-agency fragmentation and guarding against local governments’ inclination to “overbuild” private infrastructure.