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Op-ed by Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo: Broadband Will Help Correct Inequities Native Americans and Underserved Communities Face

In the 1930s, during the worst economic depression in American history, President Franklin D. Roosevelt came together with Congress to address the deep electrical disparity rural communities had experienced for decades.

The Rural Electrification Act brought an essential utility to millions of Americans and allowed them to fully participate in the modern economy at a time when good-paying jobs were desperately needed in their communities.

In the 21st century, access to high speed internet is as essential as access to electricity, and many communities have once again been left behind. Research from the U.S. Department of Commerce suggests that as many as 83 million Americans aren’t fully connected at home.

In Arizona, 1 in 7 people live in an area where there is no broadband infrastructure that provides minimally acceptable speeds, and nearly half of Arizonans have only one internet provider that meets those minimal speeds.

Millions Americans without broadband

The bipartisan infrastructure framework negotiated by U.S. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly of Arizona – which would invest nearly $600 billion in vital infrastructure – represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change that and bring affordable, high-speed broadband to every community, allowing millions of Americans to better prosper in our modern economy.

The proposed investments of $65 billion for broadband infrastructure would allow these 83 million people across our country, representing a quarter of the entire population, to access opportunities and training that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. Building out this infrastructure will create good-paying jobs in communities that have been hard hit by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, like right here in Arizona.

We must also recognize that connectivity requires not just availability — but also affordability. That’s why the President is committed to working with Congress to find a solution to reduce internet prices for all Americans, increase adoption in both rural and urban areas, hold providers accountable, and save taxpayers money.

Support for nationwide high-speed internet

More than 70% of Americans support a plan to deliver nationwide high-speed broadband, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll.

The popularity of bringing all our communities online shouldn’t surprise anyone after the past year. When COVID-19 lockdowns began in 2020, the digital disparity was painfully apparent, especially for students who had to learn remotely, workers who had to telecommute, and patients who saw their providers through telehealth.

The digital divide is even starker on Tribal lands, which can often lack basic cell service. Only half of residents who live on Tribal lands have fixed home internet service, according to the American Indian Policy Institute. Students at tribal-serving schools have reported driving for miles to find a connection strong enough to allow them to participate in class.

This spring I met with leaders from the Navajo Nation and heard the heartbreaking stories of children who had paper lessons delivered to them by a school bus. They didn’t even have virtual interactions with teachers or classmates.

Access means more than surfing the web

Stories like that are why the Biden administration is pushing for a broadband infrastructure investment large enough to make sure every person living on Tribal lands has access to high-speed internet — and the educational, health care and job opportunities that go along with it.

If we want to build a strong economy where everyone can prosper, we need to ensure no one is left behind and achieve full digital equity in America. That means bringing modern broadband infrastructure to unserved areas, making high-speed internet service affordable for those who lack them, and offering a range of training options that enable Americans to effectively utilize these technologies.

I applaud Sens. Sinema and Kelly for reaching across the aisle and negotiating a bipartisan deal to make historic investments in our broadband infrastructure. If the framework they negotiated is signed into law, we will be able to give every community, from Phoenix to Window Rock, the tools they need to ensure everyone has affordable, high-speed broadband access.

Gina Raimondo is U.S. Commerce Secretary. On Twitter: @SecRaimondo.