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Editorial: Bringing broadband to struggling communities is a societal responsibility

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A new report shows that the poorest areas of the St. Louis region are also the most underserved in terms of both broadband access and home computer equipment — necessities in the post-pandemic world, especially for school kids. With state and local governments swimming in cash, now is the time to close that digital divide.

As the Post-Dispatch’s Janelle O’Dea reported last month, the report shows that between 250,000 and 300,000 households in St. Louis and St. Louis County don’t have access to high-quality internet, with one-fourth of city homes lacking even a computer.

That would obviously have put families in a bind when schools were meeting virtually during the pandemic. But today, even in normal times, home computers and internet service are an integral part of everyday life and education. Yet some of the school districts already struggling the most with poverty — Normandy, Jennings and Riverview Gardens among them — are furthest behind in terms of online access.

The report makes clear that the challenges are about more than just bringing broadband services up to snuff. Many households cannot afford either internet services or the computers necessary to access them. And older residents in particular often lack the technological knowhow to use the internet even when it’s available, necessitating targeted training programs.

Fixing the problem won’t come cheap. The report — commissioned by the St. Louis Community Foundation and the Regional Business Council — estimates that hundreds of millions of dollars are needed to improve technological infrastructure and to subsidize internet services and provide computers and training.

Identifying those needs is crucial because the Biden administration is already moving to make federal money available for broadband upgrades nationwide under last year’s omnibus infrastructure package. Getting rural America wired has been a major focus — both because that element was necessary to win bipartisan support in Congress and because many rural areas have no internet infrastructure at all.

But urban areas with inadequate internet cannot be allowed to languish, either, especially given the higher numbers of people affected. Similarly, state budget talks about spending $250 million on broadband expansion shouldn’t leave out urban areas.

The report estimates a one-time investment of $200 million to $300 million will be needed just to bring high-quality broadband access to the under-served areas. Another $45 million to $50 million will be needed to subsidize internet service costs for the roughly 150,000 households in the region that can’t afford it. Getting computers to households that lack them will cost another $20 million to $30 million.

Those are significant price tags, to be sure, but access to the internet today means access to education, to community and to the economy itself. Early in the last century, America worked to bring reliable electricity to everyone in every community. Bringing the modern world to everyone now is no less important.

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