Throughout the pandemic, the need for universal broadband has never been greater, yet there are still tens of millions of households who can’t get online. December’s bipartisan COVID-19 relief bill aimed to help close this gap with the inclusion of the $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program – which will subsidize broadband service for lower-income Americans. While this is a great start, how can we make sure closing the digital divide remains a priority for Congress? On Gigi Sohn’s recent “Tech on the Rocks” podcast, IIA’s Bruce Mehlman discussed what it would take to achieve universal broadband, and whether bipartisan agreement is possible around long-term solutions for broadband availability and affordability.

Mehlman divided the challenges in three distinct categories: availability, in that some areas just don’t have the technical set-up for broadband; affordability, as a lot of American families simply can’t afford it; and desirability, encompassing a lack of interest in using the internet, a lack of digital literacy, and the occasional perception of the internet as a dangerous place.

Market forces alone are not sufficient to reach all Americans due geographic limitations and varying income levels. Instead, Mehlman argued that government should support consumers based on what they earn and where they live, letting consumers choose the technology that’s right for them. He equated this idea to how government food stamps work:
“If you’re below a certain level of the poverty line, why can’t there be one government stop that makes sure you have food support, that makes sure that your children have a hot lunch in school, that makes sure you have Medicaid and healthcare support, and broadband support – it feels like they’re fairly overlapping in populations.”
Mehlman further explained how the competitive private sector plays a valuable role in broadband deployment and innovation — but the government must ensure all Americans have access.
“That competitive environment — for the majority of the country — has been super healthy and super helpful. The challenge is, that competitive environment, as great as it is for innovation, doesn’t reach [a remaining portion] of the country. So the question is, ‘How do we make sure we’re not leaving people behind as we hurdle towards the technological future?’”
Finally, Mehlman argued that the push for universal broadband should be an easy bipartisan win for Congress as it provides enormous benefits to both red and blue state constituents.
“It would be a dereliction of duty for Congress to ignore the need to get to universal broadband, and politically it’s a sale that ought to be pretty easy. Both sides have what they care about, and neither side should be crossing a red line in supporting what the other party says they care about.”
Listen to the full episode here.