After months of negotiations, President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better program entered its final phase of debate this week. The bipartisan infrastructure bill contains billions to expand broadband to broadband across the country, with the aim of bridging the digital divide over the next 10 years.
But the administration’s $ 65 billion broadband down payment can only help connect families who can afford computers. So Biden’s latest version of the Build Back Better program goes one step further, allocating new funds to bring federally funded desktops, laptops, and tablets to poor Americans.
Last week, the White House released its latest version of the Build Back Better plan, outlining a $ 1.75 trillion budget proposal to tackle climate change and invest in other social services like Medicare. At the bottom of the bill’s more than 1,600 pages is a new initiative – the Connected Devices Subsidy Program – that would help provide free or discounted desktops, laptops or tablets to low-cost households. returned. To achieve this goal, the Commerce Department would receive $ 475 million to reward community groups who wish to distribute these devices locally.
“We can invest all that money in the infrastructure package for the broadband deployment,” said Jenna Leventoff, senior policy adviser at Public Knowledge, in an interview with The edge last week, “but we’re not going to bridge the digital divide if we don’t make sure people have the computers and tablets they need.”
As of June of this year, only four in ten low-income adults had access to a desktop or laptop computer, and the majority did not own a tablet, according to the Pew Research Center. Only 43% of low-income adults also have access to broadband connections at home. These devices and technologies are prevalent in households earning $ 100,000 or more each year.
The device program was championed by Senator Raphael Warnock (D-GA) and Representative A. Donald McEachin (D-VA), who introduced the Device Access for Every American Act in September. The original bill would have established a $ 5 billion Federal Communications Commission program to distribute up to $ 400 in vouchers to low-income Americans for computers and tablets. The language was then incorporated into the Build Back Better budget reconciliation program and changed into the nearly half billion grant program currently authorized under the measure.
“It’s almost impossible to get by without access to a laptop or tablet, especially after a year of adapting to virtual learning, work and more,” Warnock said in a statement on Monday. The edge. “My bill will help ensure that every American, regardless of income or zip code, has the ability to participate and thrive in our increasingly digital economy. “
While a majority of low-income adults own smartphones, experts argue that mobile devices are not enough for people to be competitive and advance in the digital economy.
“A cell phone is not enough. This is not where I work. This is not where I write my CV. This is not where I work on spreadsheets, ”said Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. “People get by with a cell phone, but you certainly can’t thrive on just one cell phone. “
Funding the program through the grant model leaves the details of the implementation to local groups, which can include anything from housing authorities to local libraries. Experts like Siefer and Leventoff also expect the private sector to play an important role in distributing the devices once grant funding is approved by Congress. In hopes of further stretching grant dollars, community groups could partner with device makers to buy devices wholesale or offer them at a discounted rate.
Microsoft launched its own free or low-cost refurbished device program called Airband earlier this year. The program partners with civil society organizations to provide devices to poor Americans. Starting in Los Angeles and New York, the program is expected to roll out to six more cities in the coming months.
Many universities offer loaner devices for mature students, but these laptops or tablets usually need to be returned after the end of the school year. This means that adult learners might not have access to free or low-cost devices until the following school year.
“There is a big difference between using a loaned computer and having your own,” Siefer said. “It’s understanding what you can do with it. You will play with the settings. We all learn by doing this. There is enormous value in ownership on loan programs.
In a Tuesday call with House Democrats, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said she plans to complete negotiations on lingering issues, such as the climate and drug pricing, before the end. of the day. This could set up a final vote on bipartisan infrastructure and budget reconciliation packages in the House on Thursday or Friday, according to Politics.
While the infrastructure package was approved by the Senate earlier this year, the budget proposal could face an uphill battle at the top. On Monday, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) called the social spending framework “a game of shells, budget gimmicks that put the true cost of the so-called $ 1.75 trillion bill at nearly twice that amount “. Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema (AZ), both moderate Democrats, were at the center of negotiations over the budget proposal, which fell significantly from its original target of $ 3.5 trillion. Democrats need the support of Manchin and Sinema to pass the resolution and win a very slim majority in the Senate.
Even if the reconciliation is approved in the coming days and weeks, it would be months before local groups could receive grants through the devices program. The Commerce Department agency responsible for allocating the money is still expected to approve new rules for the program, which could take months after the measure is approved.
Still, Warnock is optimistic the program will stay in the bill. “I am happy that we were able to include it in the great economic package that we are discussing in Washington, and I will not stop working until we have adopted it,” Warnock said on Monday.