How the $4 Trillion Flood of Covid Relief Is Funding the Future
basic infrastructure, as in magic It images potholes and rusted water pipes, which are often overlooked; Politicians would rather be involved in cutting the ribbon than maintaining the system. Paradoxically, this means that big leaps in US infrastructure often come from moments of great scarcity: The bigger the crisis, the bigger the potential investment. The Great Depression led to the New Deal, which established the Federal Housing Administration and brought electricity to the rural United States; The Great Recession led to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which directly funded 2,700 bridges and 42,000 miles of road improvements.
The modernization of the country in the 1930s meant electricity. In the 2020s this means broadband. “Our economy evolves and changes,” says Todd Schmidt, an associate professor of applied economics and management at Cornell University, “and now it’s really necessary to think about broadband in the infrastructure space.” The digital divide in the United States is sharp: Census Bureau data shows that broadband access is concentrated in cities and the Northeast, Florida, and the West Coast. In rural areas and in the South, West and Midwest, very few Americans have access. In the South, 111 counties have broadband subscription rates of 55 percent or less. The divide is often even within a state: in the adjacent Virginia counties of Washington and Richmond, 85 percent of homes have broadband; Counties in the center of the state have less than 65 percent of households with membership. According to research from Broadband Now, most counties in Alaska have zero broadband access; In Mississippi and West Virginia, less than 60 percent of homes have broadband access. A 2019 Arizona State University study found that nearly one in five tribal reservation residents did not have internet access at home.
This was all true before the pandemic, but when Americans were suddenly forced to work, learn, socialize, and seek medical care online, the disparity in access became increasingly apparent – so clear that lawmakers have had to address it. There was no option but to do it. The CARES Act opened the tap just a little, appropriating $100 million in grants for broadband in rural areas. In December 2020, the Consolidated Appropriations Act established more than $1.5 billion in broadband grants, including nearly $1 billion for tribes who face some of the worst internet access in the country. The US rescue plan included $20.4 billion specifically for broadband access, and about $388 billion in flexible funding to states and territories that could be used for broadband. Across the country, this money is already fueling projects to address digital inequalities: satellite connectivity for remote tribes in Alaska, a grant program in rural Colorado, a last mile broadband deployment program in Virginia, fiber in Arizona. Installing cables, improving external connectivity Georgia.
The $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, signed into law on November 15, will enable states to build on COVID-related funding. The CARES Act and ARP kept localities and companies moving forward rather than retreating during the pandemic; The infrastructure bill, which includes $312 billion for transportation, $65 billion for broadband and $108 billion for the electrical grid, takes an extra big step in that direction. But neither funding source includes the long-term investments needed for continued progress.
Build broadband as a prime example: Of the $65 billion allocated to broadband in the most recent infrastructure bill, the bulk – $45 billion – is for installing broadband, while $45 is for ongoing access and subsidy grants. compared to 17 billion. “We’re going to have a big shot at investing in infrastructure and capital expenditure to build this system, but then we need to provide some subsidized support annually to make it last longer,” Schmidt says. Huh. “If you can build that, and then they get things done and everybody gets broadband, and in five years everybody goes bankrupt, what have we solved?” Billions in federal funding could create broadband access, but it does not guarantee maintaining it, which is especially important for rural broadband access that this law attempts to address. Schmidt studies broadband access in areas of upstate New York with fewer than 10 subscribers per mile, where service offerings are often not cost-effective.
“If we can agree that access to broadband is a public good – for educating our children, for access to health care, for expanding business opportunities – for government assistance in funding the operation of those programs. There should be a defensive base,” he says. “But I think it’s a tough story to tell.”
Charlie Locke is a writer, an editor and a story producer who frequently works on New York Times articles for children. Christopher Payne is a photographer who specializes in architecture and the American industry. He has documented several industrial processes for the magazine, including America’s last pencil factory, Martin Guitar, and The Times’ own printing plant.
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