Joe Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill has hit speed bumps in the House of Representatives after easily sailing through the Senate in August. The $1 trillion spending bill – which includes $15 billion to remove lead pipes, $39 trillion in new public transit investments and $65 billion to expand broadband access and adoption – is now on pause as moderates and progressives lock horns over a separate package of climate, health care and social spending initiatives.
Both bills include investments critical to Philadelphia’s future. The infrastructure package, for example, includes funding urgently needed to remediate the 20,000 homes city-wide that still have lead water pipes and offer assistance to the three in 10 households who aren’t connected to home internet service.
With unified Democratic control of the White House and both houses of Congress, failing to get these priorities enacted would be a catastrophic political and policy failure. The stakes are just too high to fumble the ball so close to the end zone.
While we anxiously await legislative progress in Washington, here on the ground in Philadelphia, we need to prepare for the larger challenge that would follow. The bill’s broadband investments, in particular, are more a starting point than a finish line.
The infrastructure bill – once passed – will commit $14 billion to funding a new Affordably Connectivity Program. Any Philadelphian earning up to twice the federal poverty limit will be eligible for a benefit of up to $30 a month to buy home broadband service from the provider of their choice. More than one in four households across Pennsylvania would qualify.
Broadband providers have long offered entry level service for low-income customers for $10-$20 a month. By building on this existing foundation, the Affordable Connectivity Program would essentially make home internet service free for any low-income family.
With a single signature, Joe Biden could erase broadband affordability as a driver of our city’s digital divide.
Other barriers, however, will persist. And instead of acting surprised a year or two from now when the Affordable Connectivity Program hasn’t singlehandedly vanquished the digital divide, Philadelphia needs a game plan – now – for leveraging these new resources to get every eligible family connected.
First, we’ll need an outreach effort that goes out and meets unconnected families where they live. Research shows that trust gaps are one of the biggest factors suppressing participation in broadband adoption efforts. So instead of inventing a new bureaucracy, we should partner on outreach and enrollment with the organizations that are already intertwined in the lives of unconnected families: their churches, their kids’ schools, the community non-profits already active on their blocks.
When Obamacare became law, the federal government funded “Navigators” tasked with helping eligible families enroll. The infrastructure bill wisely cribs from that model, committing almost $3 billion to find digital equity outreach programs. Let’s make sure those funds reach the on-the-ground advocates and nonprofits best positioned to get the word out.
Second, broadband adoption assistance should be wrapped holistically with other social service programs. The digital divide is inseparable from structural challenges like homelessness, unemployment, and language barriers; ACP enrollment outreach should therefore be woven into the many touch points government agencies and educational entities already have with vulnerable populations.
Third, the business and philanthropic communities need to step up and play a big role here. The infrastructure bill’s digital equity grants can get the ball rolling, but we’ll need more resources to reach every eligible family.
Our city’s groundbreaking PHLConnectED public-private partnership offers a valuable case study to build on. Local government, private businesses and non-profit donors need to pool resources, define a common vision and hold each other accountable for measurable progress. Let’s replicate that model as we work to get every eligible family enrolled in the ACP.
And lastly, we need to bring health care providers into the fold, as well. Telemedicine use exploded during the pandemic, offering a less expensive, more convenient and safer alternative to in-person care. Medical practices, community health centers and hospital groups all have a stake in expanding the circle of patients equipped to connect virtually. We should use those touch points to raise awareness about the ACP’s benefits and get families enrolled.
It’s up to Congress to pass this vitally important bill. It’s up to all of us here in Philadelphia to make sure we have a plan in place to put these resources to work once they do.
Derek S. Green is an At-Large Councilmember on the Philadelphia City Council.