Sign up for our daily briefing

Make your busy days simpler with Axios AM/PM. Catch up on what's new and why it matters in just 5 minutes.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Stay on top of the latest market trends

Subscribe to Axios Markets for the latest market trends and economic insights. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Sports news worthy of your time

Binge on the stats and stories that drive the sports world with Axios Sports. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Tech news worthy of your time

Get our smart take on technology from the Valley and D.C. with Axios Login. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Get the inside stories

Get an insider's guide to the new White House with Axios Sneak Peek. Sign up for free.

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Denver news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Denver

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Des Moines news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Des Moines

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Twin Cities news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Twin Cities

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Tampa Bay news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Tampa Bay

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Want a daily digest of the top Charlotte news?

Get a daily digest of the most important stories affecting your hometown with Axios Charlotte

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Please enter a valid email.

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Now that the pandemic has made it clear just how essential it is to be connected to high-speed internet, lawmakers are finally putting billions of dollars into funding government programs to expand access to it.

Why it matters: The big lesson from the pandemic is that broadband service is no longer a nice-to-have amenity — it’s critical for virtual school, remote work and telemedicine. Yet around 14.5 million Americans still lack access to it, according to the FCC. (Many advocates believe that figure undercounts the number of people still not connected.)

Driving the news: Federal and local officials in both parties are taking ambitious steps.

  • Congress set aside $7 billion in funding for broadband in the December COVID-19 relief package, including a $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program that will provide up to $50 a month off internet bills and a one-time $100 discount for a laptop or other device for low-income families.
  • The House Energy & Commerce Committee earlier this month advanced $7.6 billion in funding to expand internet connectivity for students and teachers without access as part of its COVID-19 relief budget reconciliation legislation.
  • Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel this week launched a broadband task force to improve the agency's data collection and mapping tools, which have long been criticized for under-reporting the access gaps.

What's happening: Urgency has also increased at the state level: 34 states enacted legislation or resolutions related to broadband development in 2020, per the National Conference of State Legislatures. Action is already underway this year; for example:

  • In Nebraska, 11 bills have been introduced so far to expand broadband access and Gov. Pete Rickets has for the first time earmarked state general funds to address it, per the Omaha World-Herald.
  • In Texas, Republican state senators have proposed a creating a Broadband Development Program, establishing a map of where improvements are needed and creating a statewide broadband plan within a year, per the Houston Chronicle.
  • Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine's budget proposal for $210 million toward increasing broadband access has bipartisan support and was fast-tracked by the legislature last week, the AP reports.

The big picture: Such steps to close the digital divide are long overdue, but previous proposals were typically hobbled by partisan bickering or overshadowed by sexier tech-related issues.

  • Now, though, the stark need for better and more affordable access has finally summoned political will from both parties.
  • “People are finally serious not just about talking, but spending," said Matt Wood, vice president of policy and general counsel at Free Press. "This is something that’s essential and everybody needs it and not everybody can afford it right now."

Another factor is pushing high-speed internet access to the top of the priority list: The sudden potential for smaller towns to attract new residents who are fleeing big, expensive cities.

  • People can't work remotely with slow and spotty internet service.
  • The increased reliance on smart phones, wireless devices and — eventually — 5G services is only possible if fiber networks in the ground keep expanding to handle the extra traffic.

Yes, but: Plenty of hurdles remain. For example, the FCC is tasked with getting the federal $50 broadband benefit program up and running, but it hasn't yet figured out what to do if the money runs out and customers suddenly face "bill shock."

  • “I also want to think about if there are opportunities for helping those people to stay in that service even after the program might end," said Rosenworcel.

Partisan differences are also emerging. Michigan Republican Tim Walberg offered an amendment to the proposed $7.6 billion fund for expanding student and teacher broadband access that would condition the funding on schools providing in-person instruction (the amendment was rejected).

  • More broadly, House Republicans have focused on broadband deployment proposals in 28 bills, including deregulatory measures such as imposing deadlines on cities to act on permitting requests or limiting environmental reviews.
  • A bill from Rep. Billy Long (R-Missouri) would curb cities from building their own broadband networks.

Our thought bubble: Urgent proposals today don't necessarily translate to tangible results in five years.

  • This may be low-hanging fruit for lawmakers who are hearing from people in their districts about the need for better, affordable internet service.
  • But the key to sustainable broadband expansion projects is long-term planning and a strategic bipartisan commitment that outlasts political term cycles — something Congress and state legislatures don't have a strong record of doing.

Go deeper

House cancels Thursday session as FBI, Homeland Security warn of threat to Capitol

Photo: Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security predict violent domestic extremists attacks will increase in 2021, according to a report reviewed by Axios.

Driving the news: The joint report says an unidentified group of extremists discussed plans to take control of the Capitol and "remove Democratic lawmakers" on or about March 4. The House canceled its plans for Thursday votes as word of the possible threats spread.

36 mins ago - World

Pope Francis set to make first papal visit to Iraq amid possible turmoil

Data: Vatican News; Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Pope Francis is forging ahead with the first papal trip to Iraq despite new coronavirus outbreaks and fears of instability.

The big picture: The March 5–8 visit is intended to reassure Christians in Iraq who were violently persecuted under the Islamic State. Francis also hopes to further ties with Shiite Muslims, AP notes.

"Neanderthal thinking": Biden slams states lifting mask mandates

States that are relaxing coronavirus restrictions are making "a big mistake," President Biden told reporters on Wednesday, adding: "The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking."

Driving the news: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Wednesday he will end all coronavirus restrictions via executive order, although some businesses are continuing to ask patrons to wear face masks. Mississippi is lifting its mask mandate for all counties Wednesday, per Gov. Tate Reeves (R).