Advancing US economic competitiveness, equity, and sustainability through infrastructure investments

Children using internet at school
Editor's note:

On April 29, 2021, Nicol Turner Lee, director of the Center for Technology Innovation and a senior fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution, testified before the House Ways and Means Committee for a hearing entitled, “Advancing U.S. Economic Competitiveness, Equity, and Sustainability through Infrastructure Investments.” In her remarks, Turner Lee discusses the importance of equitably expanding access to high-speed broadband in communities across America.

Chairman Blumenauer, Ranking Member Buchanan, and distinguished members of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Trade, thank you for the invitation to testify on the important issue of U.S. infrastructure, particularly high-speed broadband that must be as ubiquitously available and sustainable as our water, transport, and electricity systems. I am Nicol Turner Lee, Senior Fellow, Governance Studies and Director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution. With a history of over 100 years, Brookings is committed to evidenced-based, nonpartisan research in a range of focus areas. My research expertise encompasses data collection and analysis around regulatory and legislative policies that govern telecommunications and high-tech industries, along with the impacts of digital exclusion, artificial intelligence, and machine-learning algorithms on vulnerable consumers. My forthcoming book, Digitally invisible: How the internet is creating the new underclass, addresses these topics and will be published by Brookings Press later this year.

Let me start my testimony by applauding Congress for recognizing access to high-speed broadband as one of the critical infrastructure assets in the U.S. Even before the pandemic, high-speed broadband networks have delivered significant benefits for citizens in areas like education, employment, health care, government services, and banking. Smart infrastructure that embeds technology into energy, waste, and transport systems have also been significant to the vitality of these grids, and, in some cases, have reduced environmental impacts, provided greater longevity to aging and eroding assets, and helped to optimize investments and operating expenses through modernization. The utility of broadband for these various use cases makes the case for why high-speed broadband networks matter in the 21st century, especially when they are available, affordable, and widely adopted by America’s most vulnerable populations and their communities.

In my testimony, I will touch upon three points of interest to this subcommittee as we think about the role of broadband in creating more viable options for economic revitalization and global competitiveness.

  1. First, digital infrastructure must be deployed equally and complementary to other essential infrastructure, including energy grids, water systems, transport, and other legacy systems in need of modernization.
  2. Second, consumer adoption, workforce training, job creation, and entrepreneurship are keys to making broadband not only readily available and adopted by a range of stakeholders, but also amplify its role in the production of opportunities for residents, business owners, and entrepreneurs who impacted by the rapid digitization of products and services.
  3. My third and final point is that broadband infrastructure must be equitably deployed and available throughout the U.S., especially in rural, urban, and tribal areas where the lack of access has essentially foreclosed on a range of socioeconomic opportunities to improve the quality of lives for these residents. Expansion of broadband infrastructure must also come with a promise to close the digital divide and not widen the disparities resulting from inconsistent and non-existent access, which now correlates with a range of other systemic inequalities, including racism, poverty, social isolation, and inadequate proximity to quality institutions (e.g., schools, hospitals, and workplaces).

Combined, these three points constitute what I have been referring to in current research and my forthcoming book as America’s Tech New Deal, which deepens the investments already made by the private sector in high-speed broadband networks, while forging ahead with new models that leverage this critical infrastructure for job creation, small business expansion, and the reimagined delivery of services, including remote education, work, and health care provisions.

FDR’s New Deal-era programs included many infrastructure projects, including the Rural Electrification Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority, that brought electricity to rural areas that were previously unconnected to power grids. Meanwhile, jobs programs like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps employed millions of Americans to build schools, hospitals, roads, and other improvements across the country. The New Deal programs played a major role in reducing poverty and modernizing infrastructure during the Great Depression. It wouldn’t be until the presidency of Harry Truman that the Fair Deal would be enabled, which would bolster equity, inclusion, expanded resources for workers, and put forth proposals for civil rights.

In one of CTI’s recent TechTank podcasts on closing the digital divide, Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC) stated that the New Deal under Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a start for economic recovery after the Great Depression, but it was not necessarily fair to those most affected by economic downturns, especially people of color. To avoid past mistakes, America’s Tech New Deal must follow the cadence of Truman and be fair, inclusive, equally accessible, and leverage the power of existing and emerging technologies, like broadband and AI applications, for all citizens to be part of the rebuilding process and facilitate the nation’s global competitiveness – especially after the devastating economic impacts resulting from the pandemic.

Continue reading the full testimony here. Watch the full video of Turner Lee’s testimony (starting around the 35:35 mark) and the rest of the hearing below.