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Klobuchar, Smith back bill to extend internet access for poorer, rural areas

Sen. Tina Smith1 / 2
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn.2 / 2

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., co-chair of the bipartisan Senate Broadband Caucus, and Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., joined Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to introduce new legislation aimed at closing the growing digital divide in communities across the country.

The Digital Equity Act of 2019 creates new federal investments targeted toward a diverse array of projects at the state and local level that promote "digital equity"—a concept defined by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance as the "condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy and economy."

The legislation was cosponsored by Sens. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, Angus King, I-Maine, Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. A companion bill will also be introduced in the House of Representatives.

"As we rely more on technology in our everyday lives, we have to make sure that every family has access to broadband, regardless of their zip code. This legislation will help close the digital divide and bring high-speed internet to communities across the county," Klobuchar stated in a news release.

"Broadband is the infrastructure of the 21st Century—it isn't just nice, it's necessary if we're going to build an economy that works for everyone," Smith stated in the news release. "This bill represents a positive step forward in that direction, ensuring that traditionally overlooked communities are not left behind in our efforts to provide affordable and reliable internet service to all Minnesotans and other Americans."

According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 1 in 5 teenagers in the U.S. say they've been unable to complete homework assignments due to lack of a reliable internet connection, creating a "homework gap" between those who have access to the internet and those who do not.

The digital divide exacerbates existing wealth and income gaps in our communities leaving many people—including communities of color, people with disabilities, low-income households, and rural communities who are overwhelmingly impacted by the digital skills gap—at risk of being left behind in an increasingly technology-driven world.

The Digital Equity Act of 2019 would seek to strengthen federal support for efforts to help ensure students, families, and workers have the information technology capacity needed to fully participate in society by creating an annual $120 million formula grant program for all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico to fund the creation and implementation of comprehensive digital equity plans in each state, as well as an additional annual $120 million competitive grant program to support digital equity projects undertaken by individual groups, coalitions, and communities of interest.

Finally, the legislation tasks the National Telecommunications and Information Administration with evaluating digital equity projects and providing policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels with detailed information about which projects are most effective.