WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), co-chair of the bipartisan Senate Broadband Caucus, and Senator Tina Smith (D-MN) joined Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) 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 Senators Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Angus King (I-ME), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and 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 said.
“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 said. “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.”
“For so many of us, having a reliable broadband connection is a given—we use the internet to pay bills, do our taxes, book travel, do homework, and much more. We can do it on our own time, in our own homes—even from our phones. But for far too many families—including communities of color, people with disabilities, low-income households and rural communities—getting online isn’t so easy to do, and I strongly believe that in 2019, we shouldn’t be a country of haves and have-nots when it comes to using the internet,” Murray said. “That’s why I’m proud to join with my Democratic colleagues to introduce the Digital Equity Act, which will direct significant new federal investments to help ensure people in our communities have the tools, support, and technologies necessary to take full advantage of a broadband connection when they have access to one. Congress can and should help states, counties, schools and others do more to close the growing digital divide, and the Digital Equity Act is a major step in the right direction. It’s the right thing to do for families, and it’s the right thing to do for our economy to make sure everyone is reaching their full potential.”
According to the Pew Research Center, nearly one in five teenagers in the U.S. says they have 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 strengthens 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 (NTIA) with evaluating digital equity projects and providing policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels with detailed information about which projects are most effective.
“I believe the future belongs to the connected. No matter who you are or where you live in this country, you need access to modern communications to have a fair shot at 21st century success. But today millions of American lack the broadband access that they need to meaningfully participate in the digital age. That means too many students fall into the Homework Gap, unable to complete school assignments that require high-speed internet service. It means that too many small businesses will not have the work force with the skills necessary to compete in the global economy. It means that too many communities will go without the civic and commercial infrastructure that is needed to thrive and grow. So thank you to Senator Murray for this legislation which thoughtfully addresses digital equity and seeks to expand technology opportunity for all,” said Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.
“Local and state leadership drive most efforts to bring people online with affordable Internet access and training. On the one hand, this is fabulous because trusted community relationships are essential to effective digital inclusion work. On the other hand, financial support of local digital inclusion work is sorely lacking. The Digital Equity Act recognizes the value of local trusted institutions while allocating financial support. NDIA and our 350 affiliates in 41 states fully support the Digital Equity Act and look forward to its passage,” said National Digital Inclusion Alliance Executive Director Angela Siefer.
The Digital Equity Act of 2019 is endorsed by: Alliance for Community Media, American Library Association, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Broadband Connects America, Center for Law and Social Policy, Center for Media Justice, Chief Officers of State Library Agencies, Common Cause, Consortium for School Networking, Competitive Carriers Association, Free Press Action Fund, International Society for Technology in Education, National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, National Coalition for Literacy, National Collaborative for Digital Equity, National Congress of American Indians, National Consumer Law Center, National Digital Inclusion Alliance, National Hispanic Media Coalition, National League of Cities, National Parent Teacher Association, New America’s Open Technology Institute, Next Century Cities, Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network, Public Knowledge, Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition, State Educational Technology Directors, and the Urban Libraries Council.
As a member of the Senate Commerce Committee and co-chair of the bipartisan Senate Broadband Caucus, Klobuchar has long championed closing the digital divide by improving the accuracy of the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) broadband mapping and advocating for rural broadband expansion. In March, Klobuchar Senators Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Joe Manchin (D-WV), and John Hoeven (R-ND) introduced the bipartisan bill, Improving Broadband Mapping Act, to improve the FCC’s broadband coverage maps and help close the digital divide by giving policymakers more accurate data – including consumer reported data, and state and local data– on broadband coverage nationwide.
Last Congress, Klobuchar and Fischer led 61 Senators in a bipartisan letter to the FCC requesting more predictable and long-term funding in the FCC’s High-Cost Universal Service Fund (USF), which is responsible for helping the Commission’s goal to provide reliable and affordable communications to all Americans and is critical for rural Americans who live in regions of the country where service is needed, but where deploying broadband is difficult and costly. Additionally, Klobuchar and Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS) led the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Act, which was signed into law as part of the 2018 Farm Bill and will help identify gaps in coverage and encourage broadband deployment on farms and ranchland.
In addition to the Digital Equity Act, Smith has consistently supported legislation to expand broadband access across Minnesota, including introducing the Community Connect Grant Program Act to improve broadband in rural communities. Her legislation was included in the final Farm Bill last year that was signed into law. She is an advocate of a free and open internet and has cosponsored legislation to reverse the Trump administration’s rollback of important net neutrality protections.