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Senators Introduce Legislation to Close Digital Equity Gap

April 11, 2019, 12:37 PM HST
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Sens. Mazie K. Hirono, Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and eight of their U.S. Senate colleagues introduced legislation to close the digital gap facing communities across the country. The Digital Equity Act of 2019 would establish two federal grant programs that would support projects at the state and local level that promote the implementation of digital equity plans. The bill would also support efforts that ensure students, families, and workers have access to necessary technological resources and information.

“The Internet is a powerful tool that has become instrumental in economic and social mobility and civic engagement,” Sen. Hirono said. “In 2009, Hawai‘i capitalized on funds made available under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to expand broadband to schools and public computer centers, making it one of the most-connected states in the country. But physical infrastructure is only part of the equation. The Digital Equity Act will provide grants for things like digital literacy and digital skills education to low-income populations and improve the online accessibility of social services for individuals with disabilities that will allow the people of Hawai‘i, including historically underserved populations like the Native Hawaiian community, to make full use of what broadband has to offer. Only then can they fully participate in our society, democracy, and economy.”

“For so many of us, having a reliable broadband connection is a given—we use the internet to pay bills, do our taxes, book travel, do homework, and much more,” Sen. Murray said. “We can do it on our own time, in our own homes—even from our phones. But for far too many individuals and families – including those from communities of color, people with disabilities, low-income households, and rural communities – getting online isn’t so easy to do, and I strongly believe that in 2019, we shouldn’t be a country of haves and have-nots when it comes to using the internet. That’s why I’m proud to join with my Democratic colleagues to introduce the Digital Equity Act, which will direct significant new federal investments to help ensure people in our communities have the tools, support, and technologies necessary to take full advantage of a broadband connection when they have access to one. Congress can and should help states, counties, tribes, and others do more to close the growing digital divide, and the Digital Equity Act is a major step in the right direction. It’s the right thing to do for families, and it’s the right thing to do for our economy to make sure everyone is reaching their full potential.”

“The internet impacts every aspect of our day-to-day lives, from conducting business to pursuing an education to connecting with friends and loved ones,” Sen. King said. “Put simply: it is the most important tool for anyone trying to participate in 21st century life. And it’s not enough to simply have access to the internet; you also need to know how to use it. By making these investments in digital equity and digital inclusion, we can ensure Americans of all ages and backgrounds are fluent in the technology that will drive so much of our nation’s future.”

“More and more, we rely on the internet to help us participate in our democracy and take part in the global economy,” Sen. Whitehouse said. “Expanding access to the digital world will help combat inequality, increase transparency in our institutions, and help citizens hold their government accountable. That’s why I’m pleased to support the Digital Equity Act.”

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“As we rely more on technology in our everyday lives, we have to make sure that every family has access to broadband, regardless of their zip code,” Sen. Klobuchar said. “This legislation will help close the digital divide and bring high-speed internet to communities across the county.”

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“Access to broadband internet service is literally transformative,” Sen. Blumenthal said. “With broadband, students can access vast educational resources, families remain connected, citizens engage their representatives, and businesses reach new customers. For far too long, the digital divide has left behind those overlooked and underserved communities that would benefit most from broadband. Our bill would invest much-needed resources in our broadband infrastructure—spurring growth and development, and helping to level the playing field for all Americans.”

“Broadband is the infrastructure of the 21st Century—it isn’t just nice, it’s necessary if we’re going to build an economy that works for everyone,” Sen. Smith said. “This bill represents a positive step forward in that direction, ensuring that traditionally overlooked communities are not left behind in our efforts to provide affordable and reliable internet service to all Minnesotans and other Americans.”

“From students completing homework to people of all ages applying online for jobs, broadband internet plays a crucial role in a community’s growth and economy,” Sen. Van Hollen said. “Expanding access to broadband will help create more opportunity for Marylanders, and will move our state forward on closing the digital divide. I’m proud to join my colleagues in introducing this common-sense legislation, and I will continue working to expand economic opportunity for all.”

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“I believe the future belongs to the connected,” Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said. “No matter who you are or where you live in this country, you need access to modern communications to have a fair shot at 21st century success. But today millions of American lack the broadband access that they need to meaningfully participate in the digital age. That means too many students fall into the Homework Gap, unable to complete school assignments that require high-speed internet service. It means that too many small businesses will not have the work force with the skills necessary to compete in the global economy. It means that too many communities will go without the civic and commercial infrastructure that is needed to thrive and grow. So thank you to Senator Murray for this legislation which thoughtfully addresses digital equity and seeks to expand technology opportunity for all.”

“Local and state leadership drive most efforts to bring people online with affordable Internet access and training,” National Digital Inclusion Alliance Executive Director Angela Siefer said. “On the one hand, this is fabulous because trusted community relationships are essential to effective digital inclusion work. On the other hand, financial support of local digital inclusion work is sorely lacking. The Digital Equity Act recognizes the value of local trusted institutions while allocating financial support. NDIA and our 350 affiliates in 41 states fully support the Digital Equity Act and look forward to its passage.”

Digital equity is defined by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance as the “condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy and economy.” Unfortunately, the United States has not reached a state of digital equity. People from communities of color, people with disabilities, low-income households, and rural communities, in particular, face a digital skills gap. This gap puts them at higher risk of being excluded from today’s advanced, technology-driven economy and society, thereby exacerbating wealth and income gaps.

The Digital Equity Act seeks to close the digital gap. It would:

  • Strengthen federal support for digital equity plans by creating an annual $125 million formula grant program for all 50 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico to fund the creation and implementation of comprehensive digital equity plans in each State (with 5% of funds set aside for Indian tribes, Alaska Native entities, and Native Hawaiian organizations, and 1% of funds set aside for U.S. territories);
  • Establish a $125 million competitive grant program to support digital equity projects undertaken by individual groups, coalitions, or communities of interest (with 5% of funds set aside for Indian tribes, Alaska Native entities, and Native Hawaiian organizations, and 1% of funds set aside for U.S. territories); and
  • Task the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) with evaluating digital equity projects and providing policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels with detailed information about which projects are most effective.

In addition to Sens. Hirono and Murray, the Digital Equity Act is also cosponsored by Sens. Angus King (I-Maine), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), and Gary Peters (D-Mich.).

More information about the bill can be found online, and a summary section-by-section is available here. For the full text of the bill, go online.

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