Symposium | America Connected

Why America Needs a Tech New Deal

By Nicol Turner Lee

Tagged broadbandCOVID-19Franklin D. RooseveltJoe BidentechnologytelecommunicationsThe InternetThe New Deal

In the 1930s, former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced the monumental challenge of restoring Americans’ faith in the economy. Agriculture and heavy manufacturing were at the heart of innovation at that time. Roosevelt’s response was the New Deal, the numerous programs he initiated to stabilize the economy and safeguard workers. Some of the most notable workforce programs and labor laws were established then, including unemployment insurance, worker retraining, Social Security, and more.

Decades later, as we face a similar challenging moment today, it’s technology and telecommunications infrastructures that are the leading paths toward economic recovery as they expand into other industries like transportation, manufacturing, and emerging forms of commerce. President Biden has put forth an agenda to Build Back Better to address the pandemic, reopen schools, reform immigration, and get Americans back to work. In addition to these, Biden needs a “Tech New Deal” to accelerate the deployment and adoption of high-speed broadband access for economic recovery and greater social integration. Ubiquitous technology access can also help execute a complementary range of pandemic response programs.

Making high-speed broadband and the applications it enables are priorities of the Tech New Deal. These efforts should be followed by the reform of the existing federal universal service program, creation of twenty-first century jobs and relevant workforce training, more digital-ready businesses, investments in start-ups, and expanded digital access to schools, libraries, and surrounding communities to ensure that no child is left offline.

While the deployment of a national vaccination strategy will likely override immediate attention to a proposed Tech New Deal, the dire economic consequences of the pandemic should position technology as one of the spokes of the modern economy. Biden’s current challenges are different than those of President Roosevelt. The unforeseen global pandemic has starkly affected many U.S. industries, especially the hospitality, retail, and leisure sectors. More than 100,000 small businesses have permanently closed, and the nation’s unemployment rate remained unchanged at 6.7 percent in December 2020 with 10.7 million people unemployed. Rapid business closures and high unemployment rates have led to increased food insecurity for millions, and forthcoming housing evictions and foreclosures will be equally detrimental. The social distancing mandates to mitigate COVID-19 have also made online connectivity essential as more people are connecting to doctors, schools, and remote workplaces via the Internet.

Roosevelt’s New Deal

Roughly 15 million Americans were out of work during the 1930s when President Roosevelt released the first iteration of the New Deal, which included increased banking regulation, economic relief programs, job training and new workforce opportunities, agricultural reforms, and a range of new federal agencies to provide both oversight and program support of said initiatives. The second iteration of his New Deal, in 1935-36, gave us Social Security, unemployment insurance, the right to unionize, and other modern labor laws. The country gained new roads, bridges, and dams undertaken through such initiatives like the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) or the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The TVA, which was adopted as part of the Tennessee Valley Act of 1933, built the dams that controlled flooding and created and expanded electric power throughout the basin. It is now the largest private power company in the United States. The CCC, a work relief program, employed Black Americans in newly created environmental jobs despite the continued influence of segregationist policies throughout the country. The CCC not only served as the benchmark for current conservation jobs, but also as a demonstration for how work relief could extend to all races, including Native Americans.

Roosevelt’s interventionist approach was not wholly effective during his tenure, given the plethora of problems facing the country through World War II. Increased federal bureaucracies turned out to be not entirely sustainable as market demands for improved infrastructure and electricity grew. While President Biden does not need to replicate Roosevelt’s interventionist approach to economic revitalization, technology should enable many aspects of his “Build Back Better” plans to help accelerate his goals.

The Elements of the Tech New Deal

How the U.S. allocates access to telecommunications services should undergird the Tech New Deal. Technology will be essential to the fulfillment of national and local priorities, including efficacious government websites for vaccination scheduling, the number of digitally enabled schools, and open platforms for accessing government resources. But the Tech New Deal should also leverage technology to drive the production of ideas, businesses, and jobs to fill the economic and social voids left by the pandemic. Partnerships among government, industry, and civil society organizations will be important. The core imperatives of the proposal must also address the lack of universal access by driving broadband investments in rural and urban areas; work to close the digital divide; target training in tech and related industries (especially 5G network builds); and invest in local digital infrastructure and innovative programs, from statewide initiatives to community-led programs for national and local economic revitalization. Here are the three key steps that need to be taken.

Reform Federal Universal Service

The first component of the Tech New Deal must start with the reform of how the federal government supports universal access to telecommunications services. Currently, the Universal Service Fund (USF), a subsidy program of the Federal Communications Commission created in 1934 and updated in 1996, is designed to bring communications services to schools, libraries, and rural telehealth care providers from insular and high-cost areas by providing discounts to eligible entities. The USF also ensures access to telecommunications services for low-income subscribers through discounts paid for by the Lifeline program, which was established in 1985. The USF is funded through a universal service fee, or the Federal Universal Service Tax, which is paid by companies that provide interstate and international communications services and whose costs can be later passed on to their consumers.

It is time for the USF to be modernized. To date, stringent and sometimes burdensome guidelines to qualify for funding, and the specific focus on certain areas and technologies, may thwart the program’s full utilization for the benefit of vulnerable populations and communities. For example, financial support is primarily allocated to close rural broadband gaps despite the lack of competitive broadband service options in urban areas. For the Tech New Deal to be effective, universal service in America needs to bring affordability and access to advanced communications services to wherever people live, and regardless of the technology (e.g., wireless, wireline, or satellite) they choose to use.

Universal service modernization must also include the expansion of the Lifeline program, which provides a discount on eligible communications services for low-income consumers. The program not only should remove the restrictions on what types of companies can participate as providers, but also be immediately available as a resource to all federal agencies working to alleviate the concerns of housing, food, and other income insecurities for individuals and households, as well as veterans. Currently, the Lifeline program is administered solely by the FCC and not readily known among other agencies, like the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, Veteran Affairs, and Education, where online connectivity can deliver improved access to jobs, health and childcare, distance learning, and other social service supports.

The provision of federal universal service to schools and libraries via the FCC’s E-Rate program must also be addressed. When established, the program was designed to provide discounts to these institutions for access to telecommunications services, including broadband. However, the discount only applies to online access and digital equipment for schools and libraries and stops short of residential broadband connections for K-12 students. The pandemic revealed that 15 to 16 million K-12 students lacked Internet at home, or an Internet-enabled device. Nine million students lacked both, according to recent data from Common Sense Media. The Tech New Deal needs to update the statutory restrictions on E-rate and allow for high-speed broadband connections within the homes of K-12 students, especially those who reside in federally subsidized housing and transitional housing shelters.

Schools and libraries were also given certain exceptions during the pandemic to offer public Wi-Fi hot spots on the perimeter of their buildings. These waivers must be permanent and E-Rate funding should be available for portable Wi-Fi hot spots that can be part of lending programs for K-12 students with demonstrated need.

Further, the Department of Education (DoE) can allocate additional resources to institutionalize K-12 students’ access to technology. By embracing the concept “No Child Left Offline,” the Tech New Deal can serve as an umbrella for the coordination of efforts between the DoE and the FCC for low-income and tribal students where education is part of the trajectory out of poverty. States, in partnership with the federal government and local philanthropic organizations, can add to the problem-solving by investing in device lending programs (e.g., laptops, tablets, and portable hot spots) every academic year.

Close the Digital Divide

The reform of universal service in the U.S. will lead the efforts to close the digital divide. But schools and libraries cannot do so alone. Community organizations must be encouraged to assist in broadband adoption. Through earmarked funding, states and municipalities can support digital inclusion projects, workforce training, and small-scale infrastructure projects, like mesh networks, to ensure that no community or person is left behind. The Digital Equity Act, introduced by Senator Patty Murray of Washington, offers a foundation for how to fund these types of locally driven projects through the institution of two federal grant programs managed by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The funding would total up to $1.25 billion over five years. The adoption of the Act has been unequivocally supported by the Biden Administration.

Similarly, a new national service corps solely committed to digital equity and inclusion projects with paid service workers should operate under the guise of the Tech New Deal. The nation’s Corporation for National and Community Service can receive more funding to activate college graduates or retired professionals to close the digital divide. Projects that include the installation of local broadband networks to providing business advice to homegrown start-ups can be sourced to these new breeds of workers that can be incentivized by financial compensation, school credit, student loan forgiveness, or personal fulfillment.

Create Tech Workforce and Business Opportunities

Finally, Biden should view advanced and labor-intensive tech jobs—from coding to fiber installation—as imperative to the U.S. economic growth. The pandemic demonstrated that tech industries were resilient as many tech giants like Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple exceeded shareholder expectations. The increase in revenues can be largely attributed to the shifts in consumers’ purchasing patterns and the strict mandates of the pandemic to shelter-in-place.

Internet service providers like AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and others have also fared well financially as more people rely upon online access for commerce, education, and remote work. These dependencies on the Internet have accelerated automation and the push for continued 5G deployments. On the latter point, over four million jobs will be 5G or related technology opportunities with higher-than-average wages, according to a new reportfrom the Progressive Policy Institute. But the United States does not have an adequate 5G workforce, largely due to the lack of federal and state resources dedicated to cultivating critical resources. Similar to what Roosevelt did to expand the workforce, the Biden Administration can direct the Department of Labor to establish formal certification programs for broadband jobs and apprenticeships via industry and community-based partnerships. Credential-based apprenticeships can target jobs in 5G, cloud-based services, and other tech-driven industries. Workforce development programs directed by states can create a pipeline of workers for broadband infrastructure and related support jobs (5G installers, data analytics, customer service, etc.).

The Tech New Deal could codify these efforts under the guidance of a formal federal advisory committee that focuses on the future of work in tech and related careers and provides resources for minority- and women-owned businesses.

Get Started Now

In each of the proposed elements, an all-hands-on deck approach from all industries benefiting from the technology ecosystem, from banks to platform companies, must be encouraged. This modernized retake of Roosevelt’s New Deal refreshes existing federal programs and creates inter-agency and community collaborations. The Tech New Deal invites a reimagination of public policies by constituting digital access as essential to Biden’s transformative plans for economic recovery. It continues to place people at the center while harnessing the power of technology, which is the force of the new economy.

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Read more about broadbandCOVID-19Franklin D. RooseveltJoe BidentechnologytelecommunicationsThe InternetThe New Deal

Nicol Turner Lee is a senior fellow in Governance Studies and director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution.

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