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Infrastructure Bill Can Help San Diego With Broadband Gaps

According to a recent report from the San Diego Association of Governments, the San Diego region faces both urban and rural broadband challenges. Money from the federal infrastructure bill could change the game.

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(TNS) — San Diego has some big holes when it comes to high-speed Internet access.

A massive infusion in federal money to expand broadband across the country should change that.

The Senate this week agreed to spend $1 trillion on traditional and new-technology infrastructure, from roads and bridges to electric vehicles and cybersecurity.

It's hard to say what part of the legislation will have the greatest impact, but the $65 billion for broadband service for people who don't have it and to improve it for those with poor service is right up there.

That's about the same amount of money included in the measure for Amtrak.

By making broadband a top priority, Congress and President Joe Biden are leaving no doubt that a high-speed Internet connection is an essential service for economic, educational and social interaction.

That notion was made clear during the coronavirus pandemic, when the Internet became even more important, not just to connect with society, but, perhaps in some cases, to survive in it. The need for an Internet connection isn't going to wane — remote working and school will continue at a higher level than before the deadly COVID-19 outbreak.

As others have in recent years, Mayor Todd Gloria recently equated broadband Internet to utilities necessary for daily life.

"There's an evolving recognition of the fact that access to the Internet is more comparable to water and electricity services at your home," Gloria told Andrea Lopez-Villafaña of The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Broadband is the transmission of wide bandwidth data over a high-speed Internet connection.

As with so many aspects of American life, disparities in the online world tend to fall along familiar lines, with lower-income families, people of color and rural residents more frequently on the shorter end. Those, specifically, are the people expected to benefit from the infrastructure bill's broadband spending.

The $1 trillion package is not a done deal. Approval by the House of Representatives is still needed, but is more likely now that the Senate also passed the $3.5 trillion budget blueprint that includes money for social programs backed by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House members.

The $65 billion broadband component should make big strides in bringing equity to Internet access. But it's not everything Biden wanted. His original proposal was for $100 billion.

He also wanted to lift restrictions that block local governments from establishing Internet service on their own or in partnership with private-sector companies. (The bill does not set aside money for municipal broadband expansion.) That wasn't included.

A White House fact sheet said municipal providers have "less pressure to turn profits and a commitment to serving entire communities."

Such public networks have been opposed by the broadband industry and Republicans in Congress. Nearly 20 states limit municipal networks — California is not among them — who say such restrictions encourage private-sector competition, according to Consumer Reports.

Nevertheless, local government agencies and nonprofits in San Diego have been working to help bridge the digital divide. Lopez-Villafaña reported the city has expanded a program to provide free Internet access and Wi-Fi hot spots to 300 locations, including parks, recreation centers and libraries.

The city also hired the nonprofit Pillars of the Community to help eligible households purchase Internet service and computers through a new $3.2 billion federal program.

A July report by the San Diego Association of Governments highlights disparities in the region's digital divide.

Citing data from the Federal Communications Commission, the report says 94 percent of people living in urban neighborhoods have fixed broadband service, compared with 66 percent of those living in rural areas.

But several urban communities south of Interstate 8 are well below that average, with 16 percent to 21 percent of households without a broadband subscription. In all, SANDAG says one in five lower-income households in central San Diego do not have Internet service.

Much of the discussion about expanding broadband focuses on rural areas. But the raw numbers, as opposed to percentages, show more people in urban areas are without a connection. The New York Times reported that Census Bureau statistics reveal 13.6 million urban households without Internet access compared with 4.6 million rural households.

Biden and members of Congress hope to reduce those numbers dramatically.

"This bill is effectively the first large-scale federal attempt to bridge the digital divide in a way that addresses availability, affordability, and skills," Adie Tomer, a senior fellow at Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program, told the Quartz news organization.

Here are some of the broadband highlights in the infrastructure bill:

  • $42.5 billion directly to states and territories to fund Internet improvements, with an emphasis on people who can't afford it, have substandard service or don't have physical access.
  • $14.2 billion to extend the subsidy under a program called the Affordable Connectivity Fund created during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Requires Internet providers to standardize bills to make descriptions of prices and services simple and transparent. The format is modeled on food nutrition labels, according to Consumers Report.
  • Directs the FCC to establish rules within two years aimed at stopping "digital redlining," where providers don't offer access to broadband service in areas they consider unlikely to be profitable.
While the broadband spending largely is aimed at unserved and underserved areas, there's a broader benefit as well.

SANDAG noted a Purdue University study concluded that every dollar invested in broadband returns nearly $4 to local economies.

That's a pretty good bang for the buck while helping to level the Internet playing field.

©2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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