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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Broadband Internet Access and the Digital Divide: Federal Assistance Programs

Lennard G. Kruger
Specialist in Science and Technology Policy
Angele A. Gilroy
Specialist in Telecommunications Policy

The "digital divide" is a term that has been used to characterize a gap between "information haves and have-nots," or in other words, between those Americans who use or have access to telecommunications technologies and those who do not. One important subset of the digital divide debate concerns high-speed Internet access and advanced telecommunications services, also known as broadband. Broadband is provided by a series of technologies (e.g., cable, telephone wire, fiber, satellite, wireless) that give users the ability to send and receive data at volumes and speeds far greater than traditional "dial-up" Internet access over telephone lines. 

Broadband technologies are currently being deployed primarily by the private sector throughout the United States. While the numbers of new broadband subscribers continue to grow, studies and data suggest that the rate of broadband deployment in urban/suburban and high income areas are outpacing deployment in rural and low-income areas. Some policymakers, believing that disparities in broadband access across American society could have adverse economic and social consequences on those left behind, assert that the federal government should play a more active role to avoid a "digital divide" in broadband access. One approach is for the federal government to provide financial assistance to support broadband deployment in unserved and underserved areas. 

Economic stimulus legislation enacted by the 111th Congress included provisions that provided federal financial assistance for broadband deployment. On February 17, 2009, President Obama signed P.L. 111-5, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). The ARRA provided a total of $7.2 billion for broadband, consisting of $4.7 billion to NTIA/DOC for a newly established Broadband Technology Opportunities Program and $2.5 billion to RUS/USDA broadband programs. 

The ARRA also directed the FCC to develop a National Broadband Plan, which was released on March 16, 2010. The National Broadband Plan will likely spur considerable debate over what actions, if any, the federal government should take in order to close the digital divide in broadband access. As Congress considers various options for encouraging broadband deployment and adoption, a key issue is how to strike a balance between providing federal assistance for unserved and underserved areas where the private sector may not be providing acceptable levels of broadband service, while at the same time minimizing any deleterious effects that government intervention in the marketplace may have on competition and private sector investment.

Date of Report: April 19, 2010
Number of Pages: 28
Order Number: RL30719
Price: $29.95

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