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Nation & World

Vice President Harris Takes On The Effort For Internet Equity

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This pandemic has made it clear just how much we all need good internet, whether it's for school, medical appointments or staying in touch with family and friends. It's an issue of equity and one that Vice President Harris is now in charge of. But getting it right may have a big effect on her political future. NPR's Ayesha Rascoe has more.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: President Biden says broadband is just as important as electricity, so that's why he put Vice President Harris in charge of a big new push.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I'm asking the vice president to lead this effort, if she would, because I know it'll get done.

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BIDEN: More than 30 million Americans live in places with slow internet. The reasons are complicated. But in areas where customers are more spread out, it's harder for companies to turn a profit, so he wants Congress to put $100 billion toward building out networks and making internet more affordable. Harris says she'll talk to people about what's working now, and she also will be trying to convince lawmakers to get on board.

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VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: To reach some reasonable consensus around what is necessary to actually, in this case, make sure that every American has affordable, accessible, high-speed internet.

RASCOE: She might get some support from unexpected places. Lots of Republicans want to get this done, too. It won't be hard to sell Republican Congressman Frank Lucas on the need for speed.

FRANK LUCAS: Dealing with the pandemic, all of these Zoom and team (ph) and Webex and all of these committee meetings and conferences and stuff I participated on - it's really difficult with the quality of broadband I have on my farm in rural Oklahoma to make it work.

RASCOE: Lucas says Biden's move to tap Harris shows that the White House takes it seriously, and he's willing to work with anyone to get something done. Expanding broadband access gives Harris a reason to visit lots of the country and gives her something tangible to point to down the road.

JOEL PAYNE: You are furnishing communities with this technology.

RASCOE: That's Joel Payne. He's a political strategist who worked on Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign. Payne says that Harris is still defining her image to people who don't know that much about her. But there are definitely risks.

PAYNE: If it goes well, great. If it does not go well, it certainly becomes a very sticky part of your resume that does not wash off easily.

RASCOE: It's going to be a heavy lift, according to Tom Wheeler. He was chairman of the FCC during the Obama administration and worked on telecom policy. But he says that universal broadband is totally achievable, and Harris has experience on the issue from her time as senator.

TOM WHEELER: All of these are complex, highly nuanced, where-you-stands-depends-on-where-you-sit kinds of issues and are going to take someone with the skill and the subject matter understanding that Vice President Harris has.

RASCOE: And then there's the politics. This is just one piece of Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure plan. That's a problem for Republican Congressman Bob Latta of Ohio because it goes beyond traditional roads and bridges. He wants to build out broadband, but he questions the price tag and whether the White House is willing to deal.

BOB LATTA: Pretty much, you know, at the beginning, the answer - it was a take it or leave it. And I think they started to find out that Republicans are saying that, no, we're not going to take that package.

RASCOE: Biden says he's ready to negotiate, and the White House will be meeting with lawmakers on the whole package next week.

Ayesha Rascoe, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.