By the White House's own admission, inadequate broadband access "stunts economic growth and prevents many rural Americans from engaging in the modern economy." But in President Trump's recently revealed infrastructure bill, the administration sets aside precisely zero funding for expanding broadband connectivity to the estimated 23 million rural Americans who currently live without it. Meanwhile, Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai recently proposed drastically limiting the broadband options available to poor Americans through the government's Lifeline program. Pai says it would help "curb waste, fraud, and abuse."
Most everyone—the White House, Congress, the Federal Communications Commission—believes broadband expansion is critical. They just can't agree on how to cover the estimated $80 billion bill for connecting the country. The problem, says Democratic representative Ro Khanna of California, is that they're looking at broadband funding "as a cost, not as an investment that’s going to pay dividends tenfold over."
That's why on Monday he and a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including fellow California Democrat Anna Eshoo and Pennsylvania Republicans Ryan Costello and Brian Fitzpatrick, introduced a bill to prove just how big a return on investment broadband access can provide for a community. Called the Measuring the Economic Impact of Broadband Act of 2017, it proposes that the Department of Commerce's Bureau of Economic Analysis study the effect of broadband access on employment, income, education, and population growth, among other things.
"I don't think the American public writ large fully appreciates what universal broadband capacity would mean for our country," says Costello. "The data that might come from this, I think will create a more compelling public policy imperative."
The proposed legislation is a companion to the bill introduced by Minnesota Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar and West Virginia Republican senator Shelley Moore Capito last year, which called for Commerce to conduct the same research. "Every effort counts when it comes to connecting our communities, and I look forward to moving this critical legislation across the finish line so we can continue to make progress in bridging the digital divide in areas that need it most,” Capito said.
While there may not be a comprehensive government study of the impact of connectivity, there are some piecemeal indications of what a difference it makes. Research conducted during the Obama administration showed how students who lack access to the internet fall into the "homework gap," unable to complete the assignments that increasingly require connectivity to complete. That research also highlighted drastic differences in the education levels of people who have access to the internet versus those who don't.
Still, according to Nicol Turner-Lee, a fellow at the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings Institute, it's been about a decade since the last nationwide report on the impact of broadband was released as part of the National Broadband Plan. "We don't know how many people are seriously marginalized in the digital economy or if the cost of that marginalization can be aided by having more broadband access," she says. Even if the facts and figures don't move an intransigent Congress, Turner-Lee adds, they could inspire municipalities to consider setting up their own broadband networks.
It is, of course, rural America that's most impacted by the digital divide, but congressman Costello believes the data will reflect the positive ripple effects of bringing more of the country online. "When you connect rural America you’re also creating more opportunity for the rest of the country that is connected," he says.
Simply collecting this information in one place is no guarantee that Washington will actually deliver on its years of promises to invest in infrastructure—or that that investment will go toward fiber internet cables over roads and bridges. But it could help build a stronger case for what will no doubt be a long fight ahead.