From the CRS Report Summary (R46307):
Access to high-speed internet, known as broadband, is becoming increasingly essential to daily life as more applications and activities move online. This has become particularly apparent during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, as employers in some sectors transitioned their workers from on-site work to telework and schools migrated their students from classrooms to distance learning. These shifts may seem clear-cut, but many areas of the United States— particularly rural areas—have either limited or no access to broadband infrastructure. Additionally there are citizens in areas with high broadband penetration who are unable to access it due to socioeconomic factors. The gap between those who have access to broadband and those who do not is referred to as the digital divide.
While there is broadband penetration in many areas of the United States, 21.3 million Americans lack access to a connection that enables a download rate of at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and an upload rate of 3 Mbps, according to the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) 2019 Broadband Deployment Report. Federal agencies such as the FCC, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA, in the Department of Commerce), and the Rural Utilities Service (RUS, in the U.S. Department of Agriculture) have directed resources to help bridge the digital divide— chiefly for broadband infrastructure buildout. While broadband infrastructure addresses a large component of the digital divide by increasing availability, there are additional geographic, social, and economic factors that affect broadband adoption, even where it is available. Major examples of such factors include the cost of internet service and devices and digital literacy skills.
To further assist in closing the digital divide, states have been developing their own broadband programs and initiatives. Although many state broadband initiatives focus on building out broadband infrastructure, states have also been considering other factors. As each state approaches broadband access and deployment differently, this report analyzes selected state-level and local initiatives that have tried different approaches—approaches that may serve as models for future federal broadband initiatives. These include initiatives that address broadband mapping, broadband feasibility, digital equity and digital inclusion, gigabit broadband initiatives, and the homework gap.
Among the options Congress may consider are
- holding hearings with state officials involved in state broadband initiatives to hear their stories, successes, and lessons learned;
- developing pilot broadband initiatives to evaluate the feasibility of different approaches;
- providing additional funding and oversight for state initiatives to help improve their sustainability; and
- finding ways to address duplicative funding while not unintentionally exacerbating the exclusion of unserved and underserved communities.
Whether Congress decides to enact new broadband funding or initiatives remains to be seen; however, there appears to be an opportunity for states to share lessons learned from their approaches to closing the digital divide. Numerous bills addressing aspects of the digital divide other than broadband infrastructure have been introduced in the 116th Congress, including the Homework Gap Trust Fund Act (S. 3362) introduced on February 27, 2020, and the Closing the Homework Gap Through Mobile Hotspots Act (H.R. 5243), introduced on November 21, 2019. Bills addressing the coordination of federal agencies and tracking of federal funding for broadband include Broadband Interagency Coordination Act of 2019 (H.R. 4283) introduced on September 11, 2019, and the Advancing Critical Connectivity Expands Service, Small Business Resources, Opportunities, Access, and Data Based on Assessed Need and Demand Act (H.R. 1328), passed by the House on May 8, 2019.
Direct to Full Text Report
22 pages; PDF.