How do we close the digital divide? And what are the challenges in achieving internet for all? Danielle Thumann, who serves as Legal Advisor to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Brendan Carr, joined the Federalist Society at the end of last year to discuss these issues and provide an overview of the federal and state actions currently underway to ensure all Americans have access to robust and affordable internet connectivity. This conversation, which I moderated, was part of the PG-15 Study Break series. For each of the final 7 weeks of the fall semester, the Student Division hosted a half-hour open-line Q&A with a Practice Group legal expert. Here are a few highlights from my conversation with Danielle.

Since the FCC was established by Congress through the Communications Act in 1934, it has worked to achieve the goal of “universal service.” But this goal—and the so-called “digital divide” in America—took on a new level of importance during the COVID-19 pandemic. When the first round of COVID restrictions went into place, most Americans began to work from home. But those with a poor internet connection, or those entirely without connectivity, were at greater risk than ever of being left behind. To that end, the FCC began to utilize emergency funding via the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, which preceded the Affordable Connectivity Program, to help bridge the digital divide. It also continued to administer its Universal Service Fund.

But the FCC was one of many agencies or governmental bodies utilizing funding to connect the unconnected. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) within the Department of Commerce, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of the Treasury have all become players in bridging the digital divide. In fact, since March 2020, there has been an unprecedented amount of funding, both on the federal and state level, allocated towards this problem. The Biden Administration announced a $45 billion “internet for all” initiative, $42.5 billion of which is directed toward enabling the states to assist underserved communities. In all, roughly $800 billion has been directed toward broadband internet and internet access since 2020.

The unprecedented amount of attention on this issue has created challenges, though. During COVID when the programs were created, the top priority was getting the money out of the door. While the rapid deployment certainly helped during lockdown, what remains is a tangled web of unchecked spending. A lack of coordination and safeguards between federal agencies and state bodies has led to waste, fraud, abuse, and duplicative dollars. Further issues include poor prioritization and overbuilding. The FCC and other agencies are actively working to put checks in place.

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