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Even as Democrats and Republicans continue their negotiations, there is one aspect of infrastructure that still continues to enjoy broad support — and it also happens to be the most important part of the plan: billions of dollars in broadband infrastructure.
This investment would ensure every single American has access to high-speed internet. For the sake of our country’s economic well-being, leaders in Washington must make broadband expansion a priority. Doing so will change millions of lives for the better.
Expanding internet may feel secondary to funding improvements for roads, bridges, and highways. But as the pandemic made clear, internet is essential for nearly every aspect of daily life. Our economy simply cannot run without it.
But we’re lagging behind other countries when it comes to internet access. Around 23 percent of Americans lack a high-speed internet connection. Among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, a club of developed nations, the United States ranks 15 out of 37 in fixed broadband subscriptions per 100 inhabitants.
Even if Americans do have broadband lines in their areas, the connection may be spotty or non-existent. According to a Wall Street Journal analysis, poorer neighborhoods have internet speeds 40 percent slower than those in high-income neighborhoods. In rural counties, 65 percent of households connect to the internet, compared to 78 percent of households nationwide.
Americans of all ages miss out on opportunities when they don’t have adequate broadband connections.
Even before schools closed for in-person instruction, a third of K-12 students didn’t have a strong internet connection, a digital device, or both. Without internet, many students cannot complete basic assignments.
And they’re missing out on important skills needed in the modern workforce. Between 2002 and 2016, the need for digital skills increased by 95 percent for workers in all occupations and cities. Today, 70 percent say they can’t do their job without an internet connection at home. Experts speaking at the World Economic Forum last year estimated that by 2030, nine in ten jobs will need digital skills.
Universal broadband would help close the digital divide between rich and poor Americans while keeping America competitive internationally.
For example, broadband investment will help the Americans employed in the agricultural sector. As of 2019, a quarter of farmers did not have access to the internet — even though up-to-date information about the weather, the economy, and USDA reports is vital to a farm’s success. According to a report from the Breakthrough Institute, expanding rural broadband would allow farmers to adopt new technologies that could lead to a 60 to 70 percent increase in corn yields and generate up to $65 billion in economic revenue annually.
A new Brookings Institution report further underscores the benefits of expanded broadband. It concluded that increased internet usage is “associated with higher incomes, lower poverty rates, and higher levels of education.”
That’s not surprising. Reliable internet grants workers access to thousands of job postings, educational resources, and other networking opportunities. It provides business owners working from home with a gateway into e-commerce, which accounts for 14 percent of national retail sales.
None of that can happen without investment into new broadband infrastructure. As Democrats and Republicans work toward a deal on infrastructure, they need to make sure that they close the digital divide and ensure all Americans can participate and thrive in the 21st century economy.
Kip Eideberg is the Senior Vice President of Government and Industry Relations at the Association of Equipment Manufacturers. This piece originally ran in the Hill.