Commentary: ARP funds can bridge digital divide, if we spend smartly

By James Spadola


President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan (ARP) — which provides more than $1.3 billion to Delaware — gives us a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get everyone connected to some of the best broadband networks on the planet.

But while the ARP may seem like a gusher of free money, the funds are finite — and we need to spend them smartly. We owe it to Delaware’s taxpayers to get this right.

First, we need to assess the facts: Delaware doesn’t have as many network infrastructure gaps as most states do. Ninety-eight percent of Delaware’s communities are wired for broadband, and the First State has some of the fastest internet speeds in the nation.

These ARP funds offer an opportunity to bring high-speed infrastructure to the remaining rural pockets of our state still without high-speed service. But we must not repeat the mistakes of the 2009 stimulus program, when failed rural broadband programs built duplicative networks in areas that were already wired, wasting the taxpayers’ money and eroding public confidence in our country’s capacity to help those truly in need. We should spend tax dollars where they’re needed — not where the private sector has already built world-class infrastructure.

Here in Delaware, our larger broadband challenge isn’t availability — it’s low broadband-adoption rates. Sadly, only 76% of Delawareans subscribe to broadband at home. Although major broadband providers offer discounted services, affordability can still be one of the problems that keeps a quarter of our residents offline.

For hard-pressed families struggling to make rent, put food on the table and pay utility bills, $10 a month for broadband may seem like a luxury. Even before the pandemic, Delaware’s poverty rate had increased to 13.6% and more than a quarter of Delaware children under 5 were living in poverty. It’s a problem I see firsthand nearly every day as executive director of Read Aloud Delaware, a statewide nonprofit fighting childhood illiteracy.

To promote broadband adoption, we need to study and build on proven, successful models. Public-private partnerships are already helping low-income families connect to reliable, high-speed broadband. Cities and school systems can use ARP funds for programs mirroring the partnership between the Philadelphia School District and Comcast, which is providing free internet access to 35,000 low-income families. In Delaware, we have the option of utilizing homegrown internet service providers, such as WhyFly. Similar partnerships are underway in Boston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

But the federal government has a long-term role to play, as well. In an important step forward late last year, Congress voted with an overwhelming bipartisan majority to create a temporary Emergency Broadband Benefit, offering up to $50 a month to help low-income families stay connected during the pandemic.

Congress should now build on this starting point by creating an enduring broadband assistance that embraces free-market principles by empowering low-income consumers to choose among the providers in their area, without being boxed in by federal rules that restrict their choices or favor some companies over others.

States, cities and school districts can also use ARP funds to partner directly with local nonprofits that are taking the lead on digital literacy. It’s not just a question of teaching technical basics — it’s also about sparking curiosity. At Read Aloud Delaware, we’ve long recognized that reading to preschool-aged learners is the key to closing achievement gaps in education because it helps develop imagination and curiosity and a love of learning. We now need to develop and invest in similar models for digital learning, aimed at both children and adults.

By investing in programs that promote digital literacy, we can begin to close performance gaps later in school, particularly for students from low-income families and communities of color.

Having been a battalion gunner in Iraq, a police officer doing community outreach and the director of a nonprofit fighting illiteracy, I’m no stranger to difficult missions. But in every tough task I’ve undertaken, I’ve been part of a team that has pooled their strengths and skills to accomplish the mission.

By building partnerships that bring together every level of government, broadband providers, the business community, educators and civic activists, we can bridge the digital divide and give every Delawarean an opportunity to share in the promise of our connected future.

James Spadola is an at-large member of Wilmington City Council and the executive director of Read Aloud Delaware, a statewide nonprofit fighting childhood illiteracy.