The Biden-Harris administration just announced a $42 billion investment in ensuring access to high-speed internet. The massive cash infusion marks the latest push in the ongoing effort to address the nation’s deep “digital divide” between those who have access to the internet and those left behind in the digital era. 

The White House said that the funding would allow all states and localities to connect every resident and small business to affordable high-speed internet by 2030. “For today’s economy to work for everyone, internet access is just as important as electricity or water or other basic services,” said President Joe Biden while touting the funds. 

For those unfamiliar with the issue, roughly 28.2 million households in the United States lack access to high-speed internet, according to Education SuperHighway. And Black Americans make up roughly 21 percent of “unconnected communities.” The disadvantages of not having access to the internet are substantial. For example, during the pandemic, Black families disproportionately struggled to access online learning, contributing to higher levels of learning loss for Black children. 

“When you’re not connected [to the internet], you’re not able to engage in some of the very basic activities that are required of us in society, including working, learning, and gaining access to health care,” says Nicol Turner Lee, Director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. 

All of this money is a potential game-changer for Black Americans, that is, if they have access to it. And that’s a big question mark, says Turner Lee. 

To back it up a bit, it’s worth talking about where this money came from and where it’s going. The $42 billion in spending was authorized by the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure law. The grant program, known as the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment program (BEAD), will be divvied up between all 50 states, U.S. territories, and Washington, D.C. But as Tuner Lee points out, not all of this money will be divided evenly. 

States and communities with large rural populations that lack the necessary infrastructure to access the internet, such as fiber optic cable, will likely receive a larger portion of the $42 billion, says Turner Lee. For example, Texas is slotted to receive the most funding, with roughly $3 billion going to the lone star state. 

“Communities that are underserved or unserved by fiber will likely be the greater beneficiaries of these monies,” says Tuner Lee, adding that in urban and suburban areas, where Black people disproportionately live, the issue isn’t a lack of infrastructure. The issue for most Black Americans who lack access to the internet is cost, says Turner Lee. 

Affordability is actually a massive part of the overall connection gap. A report from Education SuperHighway found that of the over 28 million households without access to the internet, 18 million households were offline because they couldn’t afford internet services. 

“There’s a high likelihood that communities where there are dense populations of Black Americans,” says Turner Lee, “may not be duly served by these investments alone.” 

That doesn’t mean Black communities will be totally left out of this new high-speed internet funding. For one thing, rural Black Americans exist and are in dire need of connectivity. A report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that 38 percent of African Americans in the rural south report lack of home internet access. 

And in addition to the $42 billion grant, a $14.2 billion investment was authorized by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law specifically targeting the internet affordability crisis. And $7 billion will be going directly towards providing schools and libraries with an estimated 10.5 million “connected devices” and “over 5 million internet connections.” States and localities receiving portions of the new $42 billion investment money can also put that money into investing in affordable internet access. 

A lot of the onus to do right by Black communities will be on the states and localities receiving the funding, argues Turner Lee. “Part of the conversation needs to be accountability for states and localities to not only state their digital equity plans,” she says, “but also how they are going to achieve racial equity in broadband development.” 


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