Instructions in the window of a "WiFi Bus" for students

Instructions in the window of a “WiFi Bus” for students, at a grocery store parking lot in Lumberton, N.C., Oct. 28, 2020. Millions of Americans lack adequate home internet service, particularly in poorer locales like Robeson County. — Pete Kiehart/The New York Times

For as long as Americans have been logging on to the internet, Black and brown communities have been less likely than our white neighbors to have a broadband connection at home. President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill offers the best chance we’ve ever had to finally extinguish this digital divide.

The Senate bill passed with a wide, bipartisan majority earlier this month commits $65 billion to achieve the goal of universal broadband connectivity. This includes more than $40 billion to bring high-speed networks to unconnected rural areas, low-income apartment buildings, schools, libraries, and health centers. And it also includes $14 billion to create an Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which will give low-income families up to $30 a month to buy home broadband.

Universal availability plus universal affordability. It’s the one-two punch digital equity advocates have demanded for years.

First though, the bipartisan deal needs to pass the House of Representatives.

Democratic leaders there have pledged to move the bipartisan infrastructure bill in tandem with a larger budget package that includes vitally important investments in health care, childcare, education, and climate initiatives. These “human infrastructure” investments are key pillars of President Biden’s pledge to Build Back Better.

But the longer the bipartisan infrastructure bill sits in limbo, the bigger target it becomes for conservative critics desperate to deny Joe Biden a win — and even for progressives who may not think the hard-fought compromise goes far enough. Already, some progressives have threatened to play hardball in hopes of renegotiating a better deal.

However well intentioned, this high-stakes game of legislative chicken could have disastrous consequences for marginalized communities. Simply put, low-income Americans and communities of color urgently need this bill to pass — and those who purport to represent us need to get on board and help push it across the line.

While 97% of Pennsylvanians have broadband available at their homes, only 73% actually sign up for internet service. ISPs have helped narrow this “adoption gap” by offering discounted service (around $10 per month) to low-income customers, but even these reduced prices are out of reach for millions of families living meal-to-meal.

That’s why the infrastructure bill’s Affordable Connectivity Program is such a game changer. It builds on the progress of private sector programs, while offering a monthly subsidy that effectively lowers the cost of internet service to zero for any family earning up to twice the federal poverty line. According to the White House, 23% of Pennsylvanians — nearly 3 million people — will be eligible for this new benefit.

Interestingly, Biden’s initial infrastructure proposal back in March didn’t include this low-income broadband subsidy idea. The ACP was added into the bill only after tireless advocacy from civil rights leaders and allies convinced the White House and the Senate that any “rural broadband plan” must also include solutions for low-income urban communities. After a pandemic that highlighted how essential broadband has become for education, economic opportunity, and health care access, connectivity can no longer be considered a luxury.

Civil rights advocates also succeeded in securing more than $2.5 billion for a grant program that will help local leaders and community organizers do the outreach, training, and follow-up needed to get unconnected Americans online. Research has long showed that even offering broadband service for free isn’t enough: those without the digital skills, language skills, or interest to easily to sign up will need a helping hand. This bill ensures they’ll get it.

Biden deserves credit for listening to our community and building bipartisan support for a broadband plan that will finally, at long last, ensure every American has a chance to get connected. Now Democrats in the House of Representatives need to follow suit and pass this bill into law.

John Milligan is former president of the Greater Norristown Chapter of the NAACP.

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