Gina Raimondo on How the Biden Administration Wants to Get Internet to Every American

6 minute read

The White House on Monday announced more than $42 billion in new federal funding to expand high-speed internet access nationwide and ensure even the most rural communities can reap the economic benefits of the digital age.

In an interview with TIME after the plan was unveiled, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, whose department will oversee the new funding, said that high-speed internet is no longer a luxury but a “basic human right” as modern life becomes more digitized. Her comment echoes a sentiment from President Joe Biden, who on Monday reaffirmed his pledge that every household in the nation would be connected to the internet by 2030.

Currently, more than 7% of the U.S. still does not have broadband service that meets the government’s minimum standards, according to new federal estimates. “These investments will help all Americans,” Biden said at the White House. “We’re not going to leave anyone behind.”

The investment in internet infrastructure comes amid an Administration-wide effort to build up public awareness of Biden’s legislative victories as he runs for reelection in 2024. The renewed effort to sell the nation on Biden’s economic vision is, in some ways, a classic early-election season tactic to boost the President’s standing and perhaps give him more visibility in states key to his reelection campaign. Polling shows voters remain discontented with the economy as inflation holds steady, despite record job creation numbers and an unemployment rate hovering near 50-year lows. Biden’s approval rating hovered just below 42% in late June, according to a FiveThirtyEight polling average.

When asked how the Biden Administration hopes to get Americans to support his economic agenda, Raimondo said “today’s announcement is a great example.” She continued: “Several presidents have talked about closing the digital divide, connecting every American. President Biden is doing it… I am not worried at all about the election because we’re delivering for people in things that matter.”

There is some political logic to allocating billions of taxpayer dollars to bringing broadband to rural communities, which make up a large part of former President Donald Trump’s base. But Raimondo, who served as Governor of Rhode Island for six years, points out that the digital divide isn’t just a rural, red-state issue. “I come from a state which is not rural or mountainous, and most people do have internet, except for a lot of people it’s unaffordable,” she says. “There’s a lot of people in urban America who might live in a high-rise apartment or nursing home or an affordable housing complex where the neighborhood has broadband, but their high-rise isn’t connected or their apartment isn’t connected—or it’s connected at $100 a month. There’s tens of millions of Americans without affordable internet, and they’re in every single state in the country, and we’re going to get to every one of them.”

The new investments, which will be overseen by the Commerce Department, include more than $40 billion for the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment Program, which Congress enacted as part of the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure bill. On Monday, the Commerce Department divvied up that money, awarding more than $1 billion each for 19 states, with allotments ranging between $100.7 million for Washington, D.C. and $3.3 billion for Texas.

The internet access funding amounts were based primarily on the number of unserved locations within each state or those communities that lack access to internet download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second download and upload speeds of 3 Mbps.

Raimondo explained that states will have until the end of the year to submit a blueprint of how they plan to use the funding, which won’t be distributed until those plans are approved—a process that Raimondo says could take months. After receiving approval, states can then award grants to telecommunications companies and other service providers to bring broadband to disconnected communities.

When asked what sort of measures there will be to ensure states are allocating the money effectively, Raimondo said that the Commerce Department will not be sending states the funding all at once, but rather in installments over the next two years. States that do what they outlined will be eligible for future funding installments.

Biden likened the new infrastructure investment to the government’s work to electrify the nation in the late 1930s. “I wonder if President Roosevelt felt a little like this as he talked about the electrification of our farmland,” Biden said. “I mean, think about it. This is—it’s almost similar.”

“It’s the biggest investment in high-speed internet ever, because for today’s economy to work for everyone, internet access is just as important as electricity or water or other basic services,” he added.

This isn’t the first time the U.S. government has spent billions to increase internet access nationwide. In 2009, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act allocated $7.2 billion towards broadband initiatives for low-income and rural communities, yet critics say the government struggled to ensure that funding benefitted the communities that needed it the most. Raimondo brushed off these concerns on Monday, telling TIME she has a “high degree of confidence” that the $42 billion in funding is enough money to bring internet access to every American.

“This is certainly the biggest investment,” Raimondo said, adding that the Commerce Department has worked with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to produce county-by-county maps to identify which neighborhoods aren’t covered. “This is the first time we’ve had this level of accurate data,” she says.

Raimondo added that she has heard many stories about internet affordability while traveling the country, including from small business owners and farmers who told her they are struggling to keep up with competitors because of the technological divide. One person in Virginia told her it would cost $36,000 to get internet access at their house, she says. Another shared that their internet service provider told them to “just move” when they asked how to get internet access at their home.

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