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With inflation surging and threatening our fragile economic recovery, every level of government – from Congress to city councils – needs to redouble efforts to stamp out waste and inefficiency.  This isn’t a Democratic or a Republican issue:  voters expect and deserve both parties to work together.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Act Congress passed in November — a historic $1.2 trillion public investment in our roads, bridges, transit system, and broadband networks — gives us a golden opportunity to prove to voters we’re up to the challenge.  The bill’s genuine bipartisan compromise was a welcome respite from our polarized national politics, but now we’re going to need that same bipartisan spirit at the state and local levels to maximize its benefits and avoid waste.

Earlier federal broadband programs offer a cautionary tale of how this could go wrong.  Poor prioritization, weak oversight, and ineffective program management marred digital buildout programs in the 2009 stimulus bill.  Federal agencies in faraway Washington weren’t up to the task of monitoring thousands of construction projects all over the country.  Unscrupulous contractors took advantage of this weak oversight – in one case in Illinois, redirecting federal dollars to upgrade networks in their engineers’ own neighborhoods instead of wiring unserved rural homes. 

This time, state officials in Georgia – working closely with local governments – will be in charge of awarding and monitoring broadband funds across the state.  Being closer to the ground gives us a better chance of getting this right, as long as we remember some basic guidelines.

To start with, we should only spend money where it’s truly needed.  An estimated 14.5 million Americans – including an estimated 9.1% of Georgians – don’t have internet access available where they live.  Getting those unserved communities wired is priority number one. 

Let’s not get sidetracked from that goal using tax dollars to subsidize duplicative broadband networks in already-wired neighborhoods, repeating the mistakes of past programs.  Government-owned networks, in particular, have proven to be time bombs of red ink and financial distress for many cities across the country, with taxpayers left holding the bag long after the PR buzz of groundbreakings and ribbon-cuttings has faded from memory.

Instead, for communities like Brookhaven where lightning-fast internet service is already universally available, we should focus our time and resources on broadband adoption – helping more unconnected households in our communities connect to the fast networks already in place.

An estimated 30 percent of Georgians don’t have a home broadband subscription, even where service is readily available. And cost is no longer the main barrier, since the Infrastructure Act’s Affordable Connectivity Program and broadband providers’ discount programs combine to make home internet service free for eligible low-income households.

But even with fast service widely available and free for those in need, a whopping 30 percent of U.S. adults need someone else’s help to use a computer and have little confidence in using the Internet.  That’s a big reason why simply throwing more money at network construction in already-wired cities won’t actually do much to increase broadband adoption rates. 

Instead, we need a bipartisan plan for leveraging the Infrastructure Act’s grant programs to help schools, libraries, and community organizations teach digital skills across our communities.  They’ll need support to develop training curricula and resources to build capacity to help the digitally disconnected upskill and enroll.  And local officials will need to keep a close eye on these resources to measure what’s working, scrap what’s not, and hold our partners accountable.

Just as bipartisan cooperation made the Infrastructure Act a reality, both Republicans and Democrats now have a shared interest in making sure these investments work for Georgia.  The bill’s deployment funding can be a gamechanger for Republican-leaning rural communities, just as its low-income assistance programs and digital equity grants will move the needle in Democratic-leaning urban centers.

And in purple swing communities like Brookhaven, voters and taxpayers want to know that leaders in both parties are spending money wisely, holding contractors and network builders accountable, and delivering on our promises. 

The Infrastructure Act gives Georgia an unprecedented opportunity to build the foundations for future growth and prosperity.  Let’s seize this opportunity to restore faith with voters and carry this critical priority of universal broadband across the finish line.

Madeleine Simmons represents District 3 on the Brookhaven City Council.