Bennet, King, Portman Announce Major Bipartisan Legislation to Bridge Digital Divide

Bipartisan BRIDGE Act Would Provide $40 Billion in Flexible Funding to States and Tribal Governments to Promote Broadband Access, Affordability

Washington, D.C. — Today, U.S. Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Angus King (I-Maine), and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) introduced major bipartisan legislation to provide $40 billion in flexible funding to states, Tribal governments, U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia to bridge the digital divide. The Broadband Reform and Investment to Drive Growth in the Economy (BRIDGE) Act of 2021 would provide states with the resources and flexibility to deploy “future-proof” networks able to meet communities’ needs in the 21st century, and to support local initiatives to promote broadband affordability, adoption, and inclusion, among other efforts. Bennet first introduced the legislation last year with Senator King.

“The BRIDGE Act turns the page on Washington’s failed approach to closing the digital divide,” said Bennet. “Our bipartisan bill puts states in the driver’s seat. It empowers communities to deploy their own networks to promote choice and competition. And it significantly raises the standard for any new broadband networks to ensure they meet America’s needs, not only today, but for years to come -- from telemedicine to teleworking, distance learning, precision agriculture, and the emerging technologies that will transform our lives. We shouldn’t accept a country where any American is shut out of the 21st century broadband infrastructure they need to compete and thrive, and our bill makes a historic investment to connect the Americans Washington’s failed approach has left behind.”

“The coronavirus pandemic has made it clear that broadband is essential infrastructure,” said King. “Over the last year-plus, Americans of all backgrounds have relied on the internet to work, learn, shop, and stay connected to their loved ones – but at the same time, far too many of our citizens could not access these opportunities. The American Rescue Plan included a historic down payment on broadband infrastructure to confront this challenge, but a larger investment is needed to ensure that no Americans are left behind in our increasingly-digital society. I’m proud to cosponsor this legislation to fund resilient, future-proof broadband infrastructure that connects every corner of our country to the internet’s possibilities and enables all American communities to take part in the 21st century economy.”

“Too many rural and low-income communities in Ohio and across the U.S. lack affordable and reliable access to broadband. In a time when more and more people communicate, learn, and work over the internet, it has never been more important to ensure every community has quality access to broadband,” said Portman.  “The BRIDGE Act is designed to help underserved areas rapidly achieve broadband access, so that we may close the digital divide in this country.”

The pandemic has underscored the vital importance of high-speed broadband to modern American life. High-speed broadband is essential for Americans to telework, learn  remotely, access telemedicine, and connect with friends and family. Yet millions of Americans still lack access – disproportionately from our rural areas, low-income neighborhoods, and communities of color. Even when communities have access, many are stuck with slow speeds, high costs, and few choices.

Over the past several decades, Washington has spent tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to deploy outdated networks that fail to meet many communities’ needs and deprive Americans of the opportunity to fully participate in our modern economy. At the same time, millions of Americans have been priced out of high-speed broadband entirely -- disproportionately rural areas, high-poverty areas, and communities of color. It is well past time to bridge America’s digital divide and build a 21st century broadband infrastructure that will meet our country’s needs not only today, but for years to come.

The BRIDGE Act would:

  • Provide $40 billion to States, Tribal Governments, and U.S. Territories to ensure all Americans have access to affordable, high-speed broadband.
  • Prioritize unserved, underserved, and high-cost areas with investments in “future proof” networks that will meet the long-term needs of communities while supporting efforts to promote broadband affordability, adoption, and digital inclusion.
  • Encourage gigabit-level internet wherever possible while raising the minimum speeds for new broadband networks to at least 100/100 Mbps, with flexibility for areas where this is technologically or financially impracticable.
  • Emphasize affordability and inclusion by requiring at least one affordable option.
  • Increase choice and competition by empowering local and state decision-making, lifting bans against municipal broadband networks, and allowing more entities to compete for funding.

The BRIDGE Act builds on Senator Bennet’s longtime leadership to ensure access to affordable, high-speed broadband for every American. Earlier this year, he led a bipartisan letter to the Biden Administration’s top officials for federal broadband policy with Senators Angus King (I-Maine), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) urging the  Biden administration to significantly update and align broadband programs and speed requirements across the federal government. During the pandemic, Bennet consistently called for more funding and flexibility for the FCC’s E-Rate program to connect low-income students online. He also called on the country’s top internet companies to keep families connected and waive data caps for the duration of the pandemic. Last June, Bennet also co-sponsored the Emergency Broadband Connections Act, which passed as part of the 2020 end-of-year relief bill and will now provide $3.2 billion to help economically distressed Americans afford broadband connections.

Support for the BRIDGE Act

National Endorsements: INCOMPAS; National Digital Inclusion Alliance; Public Knowledge; Consumer Reports; Institute for Local Self-Reliance; Electronic Frontier Foundation; Edison Electric Institute; Fiber Broadband Association; Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition; National Association of Realtors; National Digital Equity Center; National Farmers Union; and the National Rural Health Association.

Colorado Endorsements: Governor Jared Polis; Attorney General Phil Weiser; Colorado Association of Realtors; Colorado Association of School Boards; Colorado Communications and Utility Alliance; Colorado Counties, Inc. Colorado Forum; Colorado Rural Schools Alliance; Delta-Montrose Electric Association; the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments; Colorado Farm Bureau; and the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. 

Statements of Support: 

“The BRIDGE Act assures that Americans in rural and high-poverty areas receive the same quality broadband as their urban cousins. By prioritizing truly high-speed networks and promoting broadband affordability, this bipartisan bill assures we won’t be revisiting America's digital divide again in a few years,” said Tom Wheeler, former Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

“Every town, neighborhood and family is different, but we all need access to faster, more affordable broadband to work, learn and thrive. Consumers everywhere should cheer the introduction of the BRIDGE ACT as the bipartisan trio of Senators Bennet, King and Portman have constructed a smart and flexible plan to bring faster, more affordable gigabit speed service to communities united in their quest for better broadband services,” said Mignon Clyburn, co-chair of BroadLand, and a former Democratic Commissioner for the FCC. 

“NTCA’s community based members have been working to ensure rural communities are not left behind in today’s digital world by delivering high-quality broadband services that enable rural communities to offer modern economic, education, and health care opportunities. We applaud Senators King, Bennet, and Portman for their interest in promoting broadband connections that meet the needs of modern consumers. NTCA looks forward to continuing to work with the bill sponsors to ensure any new programs to stimulate broadband deployment or make broadband more affordable complement and coordinate with existing deployment commitments and programs aimed at sustaining such efforts,” said Shirley Bloomfield, CEO, NTCA – The Rural Broadband Association.

"The Bridge Act is a model bipartisan bill, addressing both broadband availability and the need for increased broadband adoption. All geographies, rural, urban, suburban and tribal have households who cannot afford internet service or a computer and/or do not have the necessary digital skills to use it as the essential tool it is. NDIA thanks Senators Bennet, King and Portman for recognizing this reality and their work to rectify it," said Angela Siefer, National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

“The future of our broadband networks will determine the future of our nation. With gigabit speed benchmarks the BRIDGE ACT sends a strong message to the rest of the world that the United States will indeed be ready for the jobs of tomorrow. Building faster, future proof broadband opens more possibilities for innovation and investment, and it’s refreshing to see bipartisan leaders uniting around bold broadband goals,” said Chip Pickering, CEO of INCOMPAS/BroadLand co-chair, and a former Republican Member of Congress from Mississippi. 

“The success of family farm agriculture depends on reliable and affordable basic utilities – and that certainly includes high-speed internet connectivity. Farmers use broadband to reach customers, order seeds and tools, learn more about markets and the weather, and use precision technologies that maximize yields and minimize input use. The pandemic limited face-to-face interactions and moved everything online, highlighting how rural communities’ lack of broadband internet makes it harder to compete, go to school, receive medical care, and conduct business. Furthermore, as too many rural Americans have suffered greatly throughout this pandemic, it is vital that broadband network options are made affordable for low-income families. By bringing affordable, high-speed broadband to unserved communities, the BRIDGE Act will narrow the digital divide and help farmers and their communities reach their full potential,” said Rob Larew, President, National Farmers Union.

“The Fiber Broadband Association supports the BRIDGE Act as it specifies a 100/100Mbps minimum broadband speed requirement, requires an affirmative waiver from NTIA to reduce the minimum broadband speed to 100/25 Mbps when necessary AND it also includes a prioritization of Gigabit service (which is defined as 1 Gigabit upload and download). The BRIDGE Act moves broadband forward and away from legacy definitions that don’t allow consumers the full benefit of a globally connected economy. Higher capacity fiber broadband services are critical to job creation and growth, crossing and closing the digital divide for everyone, and creating economic opportunity for every American,” said Gary Bolton, President, Fiber Broadband Association.

"EEI and our member electric companies commend Senators King, Bennet, and Portman for their continued leadership and work to expand affordable and reliable broadband access for all Americans. The COVID-19 pandemic clearly highlighted that there still are many unserved and underserved communities across the country, and the Broadband Reform and Investment to Drive Growth in the Economy (BRIDGE) Act will significantly boost the opportunities for the electric power industry to help close the digital divide. EEI member companies are well-positioned to build out the middle-mile broadband infrastructure needed to help reach these communities, in partnership with the telecommunications companies and last-mile internet providers that ultimately will connect customers,” said Tom Kuhn, President, Edison Electric Institute.

“Building infrastructure and connecting every home with a robust broadband connection is so important. Equally important, and must be included with every broadband infrastructure build-out, is ensuring digital equity for all citizens. We achieve digital equity by making sure that broadband connections and equipment are affordable and digital literacy training is accessible. We appreciate and applaud Senators King, Bennet, and Portman on their thoughtful approach and bipartisan support on this very important and meaningful bill,” said Susan Corbett, Director, National Digital Equity Center.

“The bipartisan BRIDGE Act recognizes the vital role that States, Tribal Governments and US Territories have played, and must continue to play, in ensuring that every household in America, whether rural or urban, has robust and affordable broadband. As we saw during the pandemic, these entities have an excellent sense of how to address broadband needs on the ground. It is essential that they remain partners with the federal government in closing the digital divide. There is no doubt – broadband is essential infrastructure. Yet tens of millions of people in the US have waited too long to receive the benefits it enables. Congress should pass the BRIDGE Act or make it an essential part of any infrastructure bill moving forward,” said Gigi Sohn, Distinguished Fellow, Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy, Benton Senior Fellow & Public Advocate.

“COVID taught our country many lessons, including that the cost of our digital divides is large and growing.  We can no longer afford the losses to our economy and society that leaving tens of millions of school children, workers and families off our commons of collaboration entails.  The BRIDGE Act is a smart and vitally needed piece of the puzzle for addressing the availability gap.  Congratulations to Senators Bennet, King and Portman for coming together to push forward legislation that will move our country forward to meet the needs of the 21st Century information economy,” said Blair Levin, Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, former Chief of Staff to FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, and Executive Director 2010 United States National Broadband Plan.

"Federal broadband policy has failed in so many ways, but perhaps the most egregious error was offering a subsidy to any service that claimed to reach the low, low federal standards. That's how the US public ended up handing billions to telco monopolists for networks that were obsolete before the first wire was strung from the first pole. The BRIDGE Act starts America on a new course. By establishing a gigabit standard for federally subsidized networks, it will create future-proof networks that local communities are empowered to deploy in the way that best suits their local needs," said Ernesto Falcon, Senior Legislative Counsel, Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“Consumer Reports is proud to support the BRIDGE Act. This bill represents a direct, meaningful, and effective way to expand access to affordable, high-speed internet service. As millions of Americans have shifted to working, learning, and receiving medical care at home because of the pandemic, the value of a reliable, affordable internet connection has never been clearer. Providing funds directly to States and Tribal Governments is a necessary down payment to build modern infrastructure that’s needed to supply high-speed broadband to more communities for years to come. CR is particularly pleased with the legislation's requirement that internet service providers offer at least one low-cost option for families who cannot afford broadband and its current prices. Finally, the BRIDGE Act breaks down barriers to competition, a simple solution which has been shown to lower prices for internet service," said  Jonathan Schwantes, Senior Policy Counsel, Consumer Reports.

"This bill recognizes the varied broadband challenges across the United States - rural and urban and in between - while offering states and localities real tools to ensure all Americans can access the many opportunities that arise from fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access in their homes," said  Christopher Mitchell, Director, Community Broadband Networks, Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

“Broadband access isn’t a luxury – it’s essential for living in the modern world. The BRIDGE Act takes steps toward narrowing the digital divide by supporting projects that will build fast, future-proof networks, offer discounts on broadband, and teach consumers digital literacy skills. We look forward to working with the bill’s bipartisan sponsors on opportunities to close the digital divide,” said Jenna Leventoff, Senior Policy Counsel at Public Knowledge.

“New funding is crucial to delivering essential broadband service and Senator Bennet’s BRIDGE Act would be a win for Colorado by providing billions in much-needed broadband funding, especially for rural areas. Ensuring more Coloradans have access to universal broadband will grow our small businesses, help people receive quality health care, expand educational opportunities for our students no matter where you live," said Colorado Governor Jared Polis. 

“To ensure equitable participation in economic, civic, and social life, access to broadband infrastructure and the Internet is essential. All Coloradans must have the ability to participate in remote learning, telework, and telemedicine – but we cannot achieve this without universal broadband access. I am grateful for Senator Bennet’s leadership in bringing this bill forward to improve broadband accessibility for all Americans,” said Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser.

“It is imperative that all Americans have access to high-speed, affordable broadband services. Now is the time to build those networks, create policies to promote connectivity, and come together to meet this challenge. The Colorado Communications and Utility Alliance fully supports this bipartisan broadband bill from Senator Michael Bennet, Senator Angus King and Senator Rob Portman that will bridge our digital divide and make us a more resilient nation,” said Kit Lammers, President, Colorado Communications and Utility Alliance.

“The availability of broadband service was of critical importance to our rural communities – and that was before the COVID pandemic hit. Internet access provides an equal footing for business and economic development efforts and provides residents with access to online education/distance learning opportunities, telemedicine and online government services. This infrastructure need is so important that many have placed it on par with roads, water systems and power grids. We thank Senators Bennet and King for bringing forward the BRIDGE Act to help connect these rural communities,” said John Swartout, Executive Director, Colorado Counties, Inc. 

“The members of the Colorado Forum have recognized the importance of ensuring access to high speed broadband for every Coloradan. We view broadband as a critical requirement in today’s marketplace to allow all of our citizens access to quality health care, an excellent education, effective public safety, and robust economic development. Senator Bennet’s BRIDGE Act provides all of the necessary elements to move broadband into every unserved and underserved community. It is a critical step that we must take to improve lives across Colorado and across this country,” said Gail Klapper, President, Colorado Forum.

“COVID-19 has spotlighted the critical importance of broadband service. From online learning to telemedicine and working from home, a well-performing network is essential. Senator Bennet’s BRIDGE Act represents unprecedented improvements to federal broadband funding to ensure that this essential service is available to more Americans. It ensures that funding recipients deliver broadband service that truly meets the needs of modern life, and it helps provide solutions for households suffering from poor performing networks," said Kent Blackwell, Chief Technical Officer, Delta Montrose Electric Association.

“The BRIDGE Act recognizes and helps solve the challenge that if you do not have adequate internet access, you are not able to fully engage in society, further creating an opportunity gap between those who are connected and those who are not. This opportunity gap includes education, job searches, eCommerce, and staying connected with employers, family, and friends. It is time every American has an equal opportunity to fully participate in our connected society," said Andrew Moore, Chief Technology Officer, Boulder Valley School District.

“Almost every facet of modern life relies on access to high-speed internet; farming and ranching are no different. Whether it is implementing climate-smart agriculture, remotely diagnosing equipment, staying competitive in a global marketplace or developing local market channels; America’s producers depend on reliable broadband. As more rural residents are able to build a career by working remotely and as children require fast-paced internet to complete homework assignments, it is essential for them to easily receive services to stay connected, healthy and happy. RMFU is proud to support the BRIDGE Act that will ensure that rural communities are not left behind but remain the ideal place to raise a family. We thank Senator Bennet for his leadership in addressing this important issue,” said Dr. Dale McCall, President, Rocky Mountain Farmers Union.

The bill text is available HERE. A section by section summary of the bill is available HERE. A one page summary of the bill is available HERE