Infrastructure bill’s $100B proposal to expand broadband access gets broad bipartisan support

Mid-South

MARKS, Miss. (NewsNation Now) — An estimated 30 million Americans don’t have adequate access to broadband, and in cities like Marks, Mississippi, it’s evident just how much increased internet access is needed.

Marks, which is located in the Mississippi Delta, is best known for being chosen by Martin Luther King Jr. as the starting place for the Poor People’s campaign. King mobilized a movement out of Marks — a cross-country caravan to protest poverty.

Velma Benson-Wilson was 16 when King came to town in 1968, preaching at a now-condemned church. King spoke about Marks in his final Sunday sermon.

“He cried when he saw the poverty there,” said Benson-Wilson.

Later at the National Cathedral in Washington, King said, “I was in Marks, Mississippi… I tell you I saw hundreds of black boys and black girls walking the streets with no shoes to wear.”

“He had to get in a boat to get to one of the homes because of the flooding conditions,” said Benson-Wilson.

Once the poorest community in the poorest county in the United States, more than 50 years later, Marks has moved up in that ranking which is less bleak but is still struggling today.

A startup called The Global Teaching Project made its way to Mississippi, making Ivy League-level learning, and AP classes, accessible.

“That should be the hard part, but that is only as effective as the internet access permits us to be,” said Matt Dolan, CEO of the Global Teaching Project. “We take it for granted in many, many parts of the country, but it is a struggle here in Marks, Mississippi every single day.”

Student Darius Huddleston is on track to graduate as valedictorian. Last year, his Internet connection crashed as he completed his AP computer science exam, costing him college credits.

“Oof. Because it was just like gone, like it didn’t register, and then I didn’t get credit for it,” said Huddleston.

The Biden Administration, too, has wishful thinking about expanding Internet access.

When the president calls his proposed $2 trillion American Jobs Plan a “blue-collar blueprint” to Build Back Better, he might be thinking about the blue collar workers down south in the Delta.

His plan is aimed at rebuilding roads, bridges, water systems, airports — and broadband.

Biden has tapped Vice President Kamala Harris to lead the internet initiative, and broadband has bipartisan support. Republicans want to see improvements in their rural, red states.

A GOP counter-offer has a slightly smaller price tag, but broadband is still included.

“Broadband is an essential and core [to the] infrastructure package,” said Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.

The president’s plan would spend $100 billion expanding broadband, but tech experts testifying to Congress suggest that’s not bold enough, estimating it could cost $150 billion to expand access across the country.

“Broadband is one of those things if we don’t have it, we can’t compete,” said Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, during testimony on Biden’s infrastructure plan.

And the issues aren’t over as soon as you extend fiber-optic cable.

“On broadband we need to have access, but we also need to be thinking about affordability,” said Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri during infrastructure testimony. “Having access to a system just because it runs by your house doesn’t necessarily mean you have the ability to use it.”

The private sector has identified this as an urgent issue.

Microsoft is years into an initiative to bring broadband to 3 million underserved people in the U.S. Microsoft Airband Initiative works with internet service providers that are using a variety of technologies, including TV white space, to deploy broadband.

“The community can say, like where you are now, ‘We need broadband yesterday. We cannot wait for fiber to be laid.’ So what’s the answer? The answer is you look at other tools in the tool kit,” said Vickie Robinson, Microsoft Airband Initiative.

People in Marks, like teacher Baxter Swearegen, don’t want to wait any longer.

“It’s very frustrating,” Swearegen said. “It’s very frustrating because, at times, when you’re ready to work with the students and show them things and do things with them, it’s hard to start them back, and their attention spans, it’s limiting right now.”

The broadband connection is so poor, the superintendent for Quitman County School District had to make a call: cancel virtual classes or state testing.

“Our Internet service is very weak. We encouraged all classes that are not testing to not use the Internet because we do not have the capacity for everyone to be on internet at the same time. There’s just not enough bandwidth,” said Supt. Evelyn Jossell.

Benson-Wilson will tell you if there’s one thing you learn living here, it’s resilience.

Students are achieving despite the odds.

U.S. employment data shows counties with the lowest access to broadband are more likely to have high unemployment. Quitman County’s unemployment rate nearly reaches 10%, compared to the national rate of 6%.

The Delta doesn’t want to be left behind.

“For broadband, we need partnership. We need people that want to invest in this community because … there’s a lot here,” said Benson-Wilson.

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