New Broadband Bill Could Close Digital Divide

On May 27, 2021 U.S. Senator John Thune (R-SD) along with Senators Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Jerry Moran (R-KS), and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) re-introduced the bipartisan Rural Connectivity Advancement Program Act of 2021 (RCAP), a bill that, if passed, aims to “strengthen connectivity in rural communities throughout the country.”

If enacted by Congress, the RCAP would set aside 10% of all proceeds from spectrum auction funds to address gaps in broadband access across the country. The latest auction of 3.7 GHz mid-band from February 2021 garnered approximately $ 81 billion, meaning about $8 billion would be sent to rural broadband improvement. This number is nearly 15 times higher than the $550 million allocated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for broadband buildout in rural areas in 2020.

According to the FCC, approximately 19 million Americans lack access to broadband. While only 2% of urban Americans do not have broadband, around 25%, or 14 million rural consumers, are without internet. This gap, known as the digital divide, has left many Americans without internet disadvantaged, further exacerbating wealth inequality between rural and urban communities.

While a significant broadband infrastructure plan will be needed to reach universal coverage, the RCAP is an important step toward closing the digital divide. By focusing funds on unserved rural communities, the bill targets areas that need infrastructure most. Consumers in these locations will benefit immensely from this expansion, and by utilizing proceeds from spectrum auctions, the RCAP can help deliver coverage to unserved communities at no expense to taxpayers.

Living in an area without broadband access means being unable to take advantage of the benefits internet service can provide. Americans without the internet lack the ability to telecommute for work, stream video entertainment, and access news online. The buildout of broadband through the RCAP will allow consumers in these unserved areas to perform the same tasks others with the internet already can, giving them an equal advantage.

The advantages of internet service make it much easier for unserved consumers to find employment. In a Pew Research report from 2015, 34% of job seekers surveyed admitted that information they discovered online was the most critical resource in their last job search. The same report states that 90% of job seekers admitted to using the internet to find their most recent job. Consumers without internet are prone to miss out on most available employment opportunities. The RCAP will ensure consumers in these communities have the broadband access needed to enhance their economic security.

Bringing these consumers online will also help them develop the digital skills that are critical in the 21st century economy. According to a Burning Glass Technologies Report, 82% of middle-skill jobs that do not require a college degree demand employees have digital skills. As digital skills become a necessary qualification for most employees in the 21st century, the RCAP will ensure many more consumers can gain the digital experience required to gain employment.

The expansion of broadband will also provide a boost in economic growth for the wider economy. An economic impact report from Deloitte estimates that a 10% increase in broadband access in 2014 would have added 875,000 additional jobs and $186 billion in economic output in 2019. The expansion in broadband access from the RCAP will help create many new jobs for Americans in rural areas, resulting in substantial economic growth to the American economy in the years to come.

All these benefits of broadband buildout in rural areas will come at no cost to taxpayers. Other price tags for broadband expansion proposed in the Biden Administration’s American Jobs Plan and the GOP’s current infrastructure plan would cost taxpayers  at least $65 billion. The RCAP utilizes money private corporations have voluntarily spent in spectrum auctions, making this bill incredibly efficient compared to these other recently proposed plans. Passing the RCAP would allow for Congress to invest most of what has been proposed for broadband expansion into other critical projects in healthcare or education.

While negotiations continue over a new infrastructure plan, the RCAP should be considered to allow for funds raised from spectrum auctions to be used in closing the digital divide. The bill would create the opportunity for consumers in unserved areas to increase their digital skills and find more employment options. An increase in employment in rural communities would also increase GDP, resulting in higher economic growth for the whole country. Better yet, these benefits would come at no cost to taxpayers. Not passing this exceptional bill would only stall out progress to close the digital divide, costing Americans in unserved areas around the country.

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