U.S. Sen. Patty Murray is renewing a push for legislation that would create more than $1 billion in grants over five years to close the digital divide and bring broadband internet access to people who lack it.
Murray, Washington's senior Democratic senator, first introduced the Digital Equity Act in 2019. The 2021 version of the legislation, introduced Thursday, is co-sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Sen. Angus King, I-Maine.
Their plan could pay for increased access through projects across the country, such as hot spots at schools and libraries, and computer training at senior centers. It would distribute $250 million per year through two grant programs — half directed to states and half available in competitive grants to community organizations.
At a news conference Thursday, Murray said the lack of reliable high-speed internet service for some had been apparent even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. "The past 15 months have only made this worse," Murray said. "I have heard heart-wrenching stories from across our state."
Murray was joined at the news conference by Microsoft President Brad Smith and local library and education leaders.
"As we like to say, broadband has become the electricity of the 21st century," Smith said. Yet, he noted, tens of millions of Americans lack broadband access at home.
While many take speedy internet for granted, lacking it can make it difficult to attend virtual school, sign up for vaccinations, obtain unemployment benefits and apply for jobs.
"We have known about the digital divide for years and we chose to look away because we could. The pandemic made it clear that we could no longer look away, and that's a good thing," said Highline Public Schools Superintendent Susan Enfield.
Murray cited 2019 census data showing 36 million U.S. households do not subscribe to a wired broadband service, including 8.8% of Washington households. A 2019 report by Pew Research Center found 79% of white adults have broadband access at home, compared with 66% of Black adults and 61% of Hispanic adults.
Murray's digital equity proposal was included as part of President Joe Biden's campaign platform in 2020. Biden's proposed infrastructure package, the American Jobs Plan, includes $100 billion to build high-speed broadband capacity.
While Biden and Senate Republicans have been at odds over the infrastructure bill's size and scope, Murray said she is "very optimistic" that her bipartisan proposal will be included as part of any final infrastructure deal.
Murray, the third-ranking Senate Democrat, is well positioned to influence the spending plans as chair of the powerful Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee and vice-chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.