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Stimulus billions for internet service will likely prove only a Band-Aid for the digital divide

Stimulus money dedicated to paying for internet access — including $7 billion in this week's new law — is likely to prove a short-term Band-Aid on a long-term problem.

Why it matters: The pandemic put a spotlight on the need for internet access to participate in work and school — access that millions of Americans still lack. That need will remain even after the pandemic, and the cash tied to it, recedes.

Driving the news: President Joe Biden on Thursday signed the American Rescue Plan into law, which includes more than $7 billion for schools to use to connect students who lack internet access at home.

  • Congress' December pandemic relief package created a $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit that will provide a $50-a-month discount off home internet bills for low-income Americans.
  • The funding programs will help connect some of the estimated 12 million students who lack the connectivity necessary for distance learning.

Yes, but: They are temporary measures tied to the pandemic, not long-term solutions to close the digital divide. The programs end either soon after the pandemic public health emergency does, or when their money runs out.

What they're saying: "This isn’t a problem that’s going to go away because of the pandemic or a vaccine," Amina Fazlullah, equity policy counsel for Common Sense Media, told Axios. "Resilient and reliable access to education is an issue that’s going to follow us afterwards as we’re trying to address learning loss and ensure everyone can catch up."

Between the lines: The new broadband funding programs are focused on what's needed now to help people, but they could set the basis for Congress to create permanent programs.

  • "I think it would’ve been really hard for Congress to do something permanent right now," said Evan Marwell, CEO of Education Superhighway. "What I’m hopeful is both of those programs will really show Congress that we need these affordability programs, and they will come back and do permanent legislation in the next year."

What to watch: Democrats in the House and Senate introduced legislation Thursday that would both add funding to the new programs, and provide additional billions to be used for broadband.

  • House Energy & Commerce Democrats on Thursday introduced a wide-ranging infrastructure bill that includes more than $94 billion in broadband spending.
  • Similar legislation introduced Thursday by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) includes funding for digital inclusion projects and requires broadband deployment projects to include an affordable service option.

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