Infrastructure, summon as it takes pictures of potholes and rusted water pipes, is often overlooked; Politicians would be associated with severing the ligament rather than maintaining systems. Paradoxically, this has meant that the big leaps in American infrastructure often result from moments of great shortage: the bigger the crisis, the greater the potential investments. The Great Depression resulted in the New Deal, which established the Federal Housing Administration and brought electricity to the rural United States; the Great Recession resulted in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which directly funded improvements to 2,700 bridges and 42,000 miles of road.
In the 1930s, the modernization of the country meant electricity. In the 2020s, it means broadband. “Our economy is evolving and changing,” says Todd Schmit, associate professor of applied economics and management at Cornell University, “and there is a real need now to think about broadband in an infrastructure space.” In the United States, the digital divide is sharp : Data from the Census Bureau shows that broadband access is concentrated in cities as well as in the northeast, Florida, and the west coast. Far fewer Americans have access in rural areas and in the South, West, and Midwest. In the south, 111 counties have broadband subscription rates of 55 percent or less. Even within a state, the divide is often wide: in the counties of Virginia, which border Washington and Richmond, 85 percent of households have broadband; Counties in the middle of the state have fewer than 65 percent of households with subscriptions. According to research by BroadbandNow, the majority of Alaska’s counties do not have access to broadband; in Mississippi and West Virginia, fewer than 60 percent of households have broadband access. A 2019 study by Arizona State University found that almost one in five tribal reservation residents did not have internet access at home.
All of this was the case before the pandemic, but when Americans were suddenly forced to work, learn, socialize, and get medical help online, the inequality in access became blatantly apparent – so obvious that lawmakers did not had no choice but to deal with it. The CARES Act opened the faucet just a little and provided $ 100 million in grants for broadband in rural areas. In December 2020, the Consolidated Appropriations Act set up more than $ 1.5 billion in broadband grants, including nearly $ 1 billion for tribes facing one of the worst internet access in the country. The US bailout was $ 20.4 billion for broadband access only, and provided states and municipalities with approximately $ 388 billion in flexible funding that can be used for broadband. The money is already being used to support projects across the country to address digital disparities: satellite connectivity for remote tribes in Alaska, a grant program in rural Colorado, broadband expansion programs on the last mile in Virginia, fiber optic installation in Arizona, improvement of outdoor connectivity in Georgia.
The $ 1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, signed on November 15, will allow states to build on Covid-related finance. The CARES Act and ARP kept places and businesses moving rather than falling behind during the pandemic; The infrastructure bill, which is $ 312 billion for transportation, $ 65 billion for broadband, and $ 108 billion for power, is another major step in that direction. But none of the funding sources include the long-term investments necessary for sustainable progress.
Take broadband expansion as a central example: of the 65 billion US dollars allocated to broadband in the latest Infrastructure Act, the majority – 45 billion US dollars – goes to installing broadband, compared with 17 billion US dollars for the ongoing access and subsidies. “We’ll invest a lot in infrastructure and investments to build this system, but then we’ll have to provide subsidized support every year to keep it going in the long term,” says Schmit. “If you can build it and then things get going and everyone gets broadband and in five years everyone’s going to be bankrupt, what have we solved?” The billions in federal funds can build broadband access but offer no guarantee of maintaining it, what is particularly important for rural broadband access, which this legislation seeks to address. Schmit is researching broadband access in areas of New York state with fewer than 10 subscribers per mile, where providing services is often not cost-effective.
“If we can agree that broadband access is a public good – for our children’s education, for access to health care, for expanding business opportunities – there should be a tenable basis for government support to fund these programs “, he says . “But I think that’s a more difficult story.”
Charley Locke is a writer, editor, and story maker, often working on articles for the New York Times for Kids. Christopher Payne is a photographer specializing in architecture and American industry. He has documented many industrial processes for the magazine, including one of the last pencil factories in America, Martin guitars and The Times’ own print shop.