The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:
As the COVID-19 pandemic changed the face of public education with remote learning, some students in the Tucson Unified School District struggled more than others because they lacked internet at home. In fact, some parts of our district did not even have the broadband infrastructure necessary to support internet access.
To help with this issue, the district gave out mobile hotspots, made all school campuses available for students with limited connectivity, and partnered with Cox Communications to offer low-cost internet to TUSD families.
Still, access to the internet remains an ongoing issue in our district, our state and nationwide, but I’m hopeful that with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act we finally have an opportunity to close the digital divide and bring every person in this country access to high-speed internet.
Today, high-speed internet is needed for everything from school to basic health care, skills training and family engagements. Every year it seems that access to the internet becomes more and more critical for not only students but people of any age who want to thrive and stay connected to a changing world.
Low-income families and older people learned this all too well throughout the pandemic when social distancing measures forced us to move work, socializing and even holiday dinners to the virtual realm. This created inevitable challenges for the 44% of Americans who make less than $30,000 a year and do not have internet at home because they cannot afford it.
The infrastructure bill will address broadband affordability head on with $14 billion in federal funding for a game-changing program called the Affordability Connectivity Benefit (ACB) that will provide qualifying households with a $30 per month benefit that goes toward their internet bills.
In Arizona that would mean that 1,756,000 people, or 24% of Arizona residents, would be eligible for the $30 monthly benefit. We know this program will help people because it extends an already successful program from the pandemic relief that brought over 4.5 million households online.
Even more, the infrastructure bill provides $2.75 billion in funding for digital equity; programs that are designed to reach vulnerable communities who have traditionally had low internet adoption rates – including older Americans and low-income families – to teach them digital literacy skills and educate them on how to utilize the internet to suit their needs.
Too often well-meaning government programs fail to reach the people they are intended to help, but the infrastructure bill would pair affordability with adoption programs to make a greater impact. This proposal not only provides the resources to get everyone connected to the internet, it makes real investments in ensuring that the people who need the benefit are provided with the information needed to opt into the program.
In addition to funding for broadband affordability and digital equity, the bill prioritizes expanding the broadband infrastructure to unserved areas around the country — predominantly the rural communities who have been promised high-speed internet for far too long. Because rural areas often have lower per capita incomes, this bill will particularly help rural communities that have typically lacked the infrastructure and the resources to get online by providing for both of these needs.
While there is still an incredible amount of work left to do to fix all the facets of inequality that exist in our country, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will break down the barrier of the digital divide. But in order to bring everyone into the 21st century, we need our leaders in the House of Representatives to see the urgency of the situation and pass the bill now because 1,756,000 Arizonans young and old are counting on them to access high-speed internet and all the knowledge and power that comes with it.
Artist, Organizer, and TUSD Governing Board Member