Angie Cooper, Chief Program Officer of Heartland Forward
The recent signing of the federal infrastructure package is welcome news in the fight to close the digital divide across the heartland. Containing billions of dollars in funding to expand broadband access across the country, this legislation holds great promise to improve life for everyday Americans — especially the estimated 40 million Americans who still lack access to the reliable, affordable high-speed internet needed to participate fully in our digital age. Now the real work begins to make sure every dollar is spent efficiently and in service of the communities it’s intended to help.
In light of historic investments in high-speed internet, the question of closing the digital divide has shifted from “Where will we find the resources?” to “How can we most effectively deploy the resources we have?” With the risk of accidental overlap and waste, ensuring that the funding allocated in the recently passed federal infrastructure bill reaches the people who need it most will require an unwavering commitment to the public good and strategic, ongoing coordination between local, state and federal stakeholders.
Since Heartland Forward launched our Connecting the Heartland initiative to help close the digital divide, we have had the opportunity to engage with policymakers, subject matter experts, community leaders, digital equity advocates and residents across the heartland. We feel their hope and optimism for a not-too-distant future where every resident has access to high-speed internet at a price they can afford, and the skills and know-how to take full advantage of the opportunities that come with connectivity. We also sense their fear that some communities will be left behind if we are not intentional about how we move forward in this historic moment.
To that end, our work through Connecting the Heartland in the coming months and years will be anchored in these four guiding principles:
- Public investments in high-speed internet should lift everyone up. The long-term success depends on having consumers who can afford the service, understand and trust its relevance for improving their lives and the skills to know how to use it.
- Communities should drive solutions that meet their own unique needs. Too many communities, especially smaller ones, are not currently prepared to leverage new funds to bring connectivity to their communities. They need to be empowered with independent information, expertise and authority to develop plans based on their own local needs and circumstances.
- Regulations and standards should maximize today’s investments for long-term impact. The amount of funding and post-pandemic momentum we are seeing now is not likely to be repeated in the decades ahead. This is a once-in-a-lifetime moment to make sure every household has access to internet service that can facilitate full participation in the digital world. Regulations and standards should be designed to encourage maximum efficiency in the deployment process, transparency and speeds that will meet tomorrow’s needs.
- Access to high-speed internet will positively impact our economy. As ambitious and urgent as the need to close the digital divide is in the heartland and across America, this moment provides an opportunity to do even more. Public funds spent to increase access to internet service can serve double-duty in addressing other needs, from healthcare quality and access, to education and training, to job creation.
There is hard work to be done to put these principles into action. But the clock is ticking, and the stakes have never been higher. We know it will take commitment and collaboration across all sectors and all levels of government. We are ready for the ground game in our states and communities. We invite other organizations and policymakers to join us.