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Viewpoint: Real work on broadband begins now

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Now that President Biden has signed the infrastructure bill into law, the pundits are pivoting to ask whether this victory will lift his political stock. A better question is, “How can Delaware make sure this victory lifts up vulnerable families across our state?”

Biden’s bipartisan bill will deliver $1.425 billion to Delaware, money that can be used to repair the 19 bridges and over 250 miles of highway in poor condition. The bill also provides $100 million for broadband deployment across our state, with millions more to help low-income residents secure fast and reliable internet access.

State Sen. Nicole Poore | PHOTO COURTESY OF STATE OF DELAWARE

In the 21st century, that broadband infrastructure is arguably just as important as the physical infrastructure we use to commute to work. Over the last two years, we have all seen firsthand just how critical the internet can be when it comes to helping our children complete schoolwork, reporting for work even when we’re remote, protecting our access to medical professionals, keeping in touch with our families and friends, and ensuring state government continues to serve Delawareans during a crisis.

For me, this isn’t partisan politics or abstract policy – it’s personal. As the mother of three kids – one born premature and diagnosed with cerebral palsy – I know universal broadband connectivity means that every family will have uninterrupted access to education, including special needs programs, and to world-class medical professionals via telehealth.

Reaching the goal of universal connectivity will require painstaking planning, as well as expert execution.

Our first challenge is to bring broadband to every small-town street and rural road. According to the FCC, at least 15,000 Delawareans still don’t have broadband service available where they live. Building on Gov. John Carney’s visionary rural broadband program, this new infusion of federal dollars will ensure we can build out broadband networks to make sure that broadband is available everywhere. No exceptions. No excuses.

We have all the funding we need to get the job done, as long as we prioritize wiring unserved areas over places that already have broadband.

But wiring unserved areas, important as it is, isn’t our hardest challenge. About 98% of Delaware’s communities are already wired for broadband – but about 24% of Delaware residents still are not connected.

Why not? And what can we do about it?

With 11.8% of Delawareans living in poverty before the pandemic – including 26% in Wilmington and 24.4% in Dover – some families haven’t subscribed to broadband because they couldn’t afford it, even at the steeply discounted prices broadband providers offer to low-income customers.

But the infrastructure bill’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) effectively removes monthly subscription costs as a barrier to getting connected. Some 200,000 low-income Delawareans – 21% of our population – will be eligible for a stipend of up to $30 per month to buy broadband service from their choice of providers.

This means that home broadband service can be obtained essentially free of charge for families earning up to double the federal poverty line. As more unconnected families learn about and enroll in this transformative program, it will go a long way to closing the digital divide, which is both a cause and effect of racial, ethnic and economic inequalities.

But discounts and subsidies alone won’t get all broadband holdouts online. Sadly, research shows 71% of unconnected adults say they’re just not interested in signing up. The problems: a lack of trust in large institutions, from government to business; bitter experience with other offers that proved “too good to be true;” and not knowing why and how to go online.

We need to approach these challenges just like we address voter registration and vaccination campaigns, as well as the gritty day-to-day work of constituent service during the recent medical and economic emergencies.

That means pounding the pavements, going door-to-door, person-to-person to spread the word about how broadband connections can change families’ lives. We need to motivate and mobilize the community leaders whom people know and trust – clergy, educators, small businesspeople, PTA leaders, civic groups and civil rights organizations.

Drawing on our lived experience, parents like me can explain how broadband connections open up opportunities, from special education to online medical consultations.

And to fulfill the promise of universal connectivity, our schools need to teach digital literacy.

While we need to hit the ground running right now, we should also commit to a sustained organizing plan, knowing it may take years to get everyone connected. As huge and historic as the infrastructure program is, bipartisan ceremonies and social media victory laps are the easy part. Getting unconnected families wired and connected will take hard work over the long haul.

Let’s get started. And let’s do it right.

State Sen. Nicole Poore (D-New Castle/Bear) chairs the Senate Capital Improvement Committee.

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