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VIEWPOINT: Infrastructure Bill will bridge Delaware’s digital divide

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In the past few months, Delaware has endured floods, continued confronting COVID-19, and reopened our schools after 18 months of remote and hybrid learning.

State Treasurer Colleen Davis | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

These challenges underscore the urgency of retooling our infrastructure, from highways and dams to high-speed internet. And encouragingly, Congress overcame ideological gridlock to pass a historic bipartisan infrastructure bill that provides at least $1.8 billion for Delaware projects.

As meteorological and medical crises reveal, it’s time to restore the 20th century infrastructure that moves people and products – and retool the 21st century infrastructure that transmits information and ideas.

With the American Society of Civil Engineers giving Delaware’s infrastructure a D, we need the bill’s $1.2 billion for repairing our highways and $225 million for our bridges.

The bill will also send Delaware at least $100 million to help deploy broadband networks in unconnected rural areas and unwired urban apartment buildings. And where world-class networks are already available, the bill’s groundbreaking new programs that will ensure affordability and accelerate broadband adoption across our state.

As a financial analyst, I believe in breaking down problems. The digital divide comprises three different challenges.

First, we need broadband on every Delawarean’s doorstep. Fortunately, 98% of Delaware’s communities are wired for broadband, with some of the nation’s fastest internet speeds.

But in Sussex County, where I grew up and live today with my family – about 7% of residents don’t have wired high-speed networks available. Without broadband, communities have a hard time attracting businesses and jobs, educating their kids, or using telehealth to consult with their doctors from home.

Delaware will be the first state in the country to hardwire every home and business with high-speed internet under a plan just announced by Gov. John Carney, Sen. Tom Carper, Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, and other state leaders. The $42 billion broadband plan in infrastructure bill will help ensure every home – especially in rural areas – is properly wired. 

At the same time in Delaware and across America, the great majority of people who aren’t connected to broadband live in urban and suburban areas where networks are already available. About 15 million urban homes – disproportionately Black, Latino and lower income – are not connected even though broadband is at their front door. 

Part of the problem is affordability. Broadband providers offer steep discounts for low-income customers. But after making rent, paying utility bills, putting food on the table, and buying back-to-school clothes for their kids, many struggling families still need help to buy broadband service.

The infrastructure bill includes an unprecedented commitment to ensuring broadband is affordable for all Americans. More than 200,000 low-income Delawareans – 21% of our population – will be eligible for the Affordable Connectivity Benefit, which offers up to $30 a month to subsidizing broadband subscriptions for families in need.

This builds on what works: Private providers’ discounted subscriptions have brought more than 14 million low-income Americans online. And the federal government’s temporary Emergency Broadband Benefit has connected more than 5 million households. 

But research shows that even when broadband is accessible and affordable, we still struggle to close the digital divide. Some families still don’t know that these broadband subsidy programs are available. Some think, “There has to be a catch.” And others don’t have the digital know-how or the interest to get online.

That’s why, along with extending broadband networks and subsidizing subscriptions, the infrastructure bill provides $2.75 billion to launch digital inclusion programs. Delaware will receive funding to create our own grant program, allowing us to create a corps of “digital navigators” to lead on-the-ground outreach and conduct training programs to help families understand why and how to get online.

Having worked in disaster relief and community health programs at home and abroad, I’d like to see the First State lead the nation in digital literacy training programs, including door-to-door outreach to get eligible families enrolled in the Affordable Connectivity Benefit.

As President Biden would say, “Here’s the deal.” The infrastructure bill offers Delaware a once-in-a-generation chance to promote broadband access, affordability and adoption – along with repairing our roads, railways and highways. Let’s seize this opportunity to “Build Back Better” for the Information Age.

Colleen C. Davis is the elected state treasurer of Delaware.

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