America is a nation of internet haves and have nots. That digital divide now has the attention of Washington Sen. Patty Murray, who wants to empower rural, tribal and other underserved communities with the internet access and skills that much of America already enjoys.
Bridging the digital divide will require leadership and a massive investment akin to America’s efforts to bring electricity to rural areas in the first half of the 20th century. Washington is already working on it. Gov. Jay Inslee and others are striving to bring affordable, high-speed internet to every corner of the state.
But broadband access alone isn’t enough. People — especially students — also need the skills to take full advantage of the internet, which is why Murray and several of her fellow Democrats have introduced the Digital Equity Act of 2019.
The senator likens it to not only having highways but also having access to cars and knowing how to safely drive them. That analogy fits surprisingly well. Remember the early years of the internet when it was dubbed the “information superhighway”? That term is long gone, but roadblocks to digital access and expertise persist.
Murray’s legislation would create two $125 million grant programs. One would allow states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico to implement digital equity plans. The other would fund competitive grants supporting digital inclusion.
To illustrate why the Digital Equity Act is needed, supporters cite a Pew Research Center study from last year that found 15 percent of U.S. households with school-age children lacked high-speed internet at home, putting them at a tremendous disadvantage for doing homework, applying for jobs and working toward careers. A city of Seattle study found that 95 percent of households had internet access, but low-income and housing-insecure Seattleites were five to seven times more likely to lack that access.
Access to information also contributes to the deep political divides in our country. It’s hard to have an honest and fruitful conversation when some people have access to deep wells of information that others lack.
Several organizations, including the Seattle and Tacoma public libraries, have created ways to provide internet options and opportunities for youth and others. The Digital Equity Act would spur such efforts.
The digital divide exemplifies and exacerbates our nation’s economic and educational inequities. Sen. Murray deserves credit for paying attention and taking action.