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Mitch Landrieu aims to bridge the digital divide. He needs your help to do that

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

When President Biden delivered his State of the Union address this winter, the big emotional thrust of the speech was a law he had signed more than a year earlier.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Projects are going to put thousands of people to work rebuilding our highways, our bridges, our railroads, our tunnels, ports, airports, clean water, high-speed internet all across America.

DETROW: The Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, a $1.2 trillion law that achieved two major promises of Biden's campaign for the White House - that he would put federal money into rebuilding the country and that he could get Republicans and Democrats to actually work together and pass major legislation.

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BIDEN: And my Republican friends who voted against it as well - but I'm still - I still get asked to fund the projects in those districts as well. But don't worry. I promised I'd be a president for all Americans. We'll fund these projects, and I'll see you at the groundbreaking.

DETROW: This is the year that a lot of the money starts flowing to states and local governments - 225 billion of it so far. And if Biden wants voters to think about him as a president who got major life-changing projects passed and built before next year's election, this is the year the act needs to start to stick more in Americans' minds. The man in charge of making sure that all of this happens - that money gets to state and local governments, that bids for the construction of these big projects go out in time, that enough people are signing up for the new programs - is former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. Landrieu has spent the past 19 months fielding thousands of phone calls, making hundreds of trips across the U.S., telling everyone he comes across how big of a deal the Infrastructure Act is.

MITCH LANDRIEU: Well, I think it's clear now that we're not turning back. I think that's clear to everybody in the country that we're heading in a very specific direction where there is no reverse.

DETROW: Mitch Landrieu is something a bit rare these days - an unapologetic professional politician, somebody who will immediately try to charm every room he walks into, even a room of mildly cranky, mildly self-important political journalists.

LANDRIEU: God, what a handsome group. Y'all can't talk? How's everybody doing? What's going on? This is my office. You like it?

DETROW: It's in his blood. He's been in office for decades, and he's the son of one-time New Orleans mayor Moon Landrieu and the brother of former U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu. Now he's running a 15-person team, coordinating with federal agencies, state governments and local governments to get more than a trillion dollars' worth of major projects up and running as quickly as possible.

LANDRIEU: My team's job, along with the president being our leader, is to build the team, get the money out of the door and then to tell the story. And so as we're...

DETROW: Flying from Washington to New York City on Air Force One this winter, Landrieu told me that even if the Infrastructure Act's projects will take years to be built, he's operating with urgency.

LANDRIEU: Secondly, we have intense focus every day, all day. It's all about hurry the hell up and get it done from the president's perspective. So that's just the way we roll.

BEN LABOLT: He's a get-it-done guy, and he gets in the weeds. He travels and sees things on the ground.

DETROW: Ben LaBolt is the White House communications director.

LABOLT: It feels like sometimes he's in more than five states a week.

DETROW: In January, Landrieu was flying with Biden to tout a major new rail tunnel in and out of Manhattan. In June, he was in Maryland talking up a $14 billion effort to provide internet access to people who can't afford it. Landrieu said he'd been on the phone with three officials already that day, including Maryland's governor. And then speaking to a crowd at a library, Landrieu insisted the internet access effort is his favorite program in the Infrastructure Act.

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LANDRIEU: Knowledge is the great equalizer. If you don't have access to technology in order to access the knowledge, then you get left behind.

DETROW: The Affordable Connectivity Program gives monthly $30 subsidies for lower-income individuals to buy internet access. The Biden administration has gotten many internet companies to offer $30 plans at the same time, making access essentially free. About 19 million people have already signed up - people like Misael Mendez who remembers having to stay late at school to finish homework he needed the internet for.

MISAEL MENDEZ: This was honestly, like, super frustrating for me as a teenager because - how many teenagers, like, want to go to school early, want to leave late or spend their weekends at a library? No teenager wants to do that.

DETROW: The 23-year-old Texan was skeptical at first, but applied for the program and now pays $20 a month to get online, down from 50.

MENDEZ: It might not be much to some people. And people like me, who come from, like, a low-income immigrant household and background, like, $30 is extra money for gas, for food and, for some people, for rent.

DETROW: The internet program has political benefits for the administration, too. The huge physical projects the Infrastructure Act will fund may take years to build. For your cheap internet access - that's immediate, understandable and something voters may more quickly appreciate. But in Maryland, Landrieu is telling a roomful of librarians that the ACP is facing a bit of a problem.

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LANDRIEU: These are jelly beans to be given out in the bank. Two individuals who, if they're eligible for it, can just sign up and actually have...

DETROW: They're all in the library basement training on how to get more people signed up for the program. Landrieu's telling them it's going to take some work.

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LANDRIEU: We have this thing going on where some people, notwithstanding our best efforts, say, well, I don't know. I'm so busy trying to get to work. I'm so busy trying to get from day to day. I'm so busy trying to pick my kids up from school. I'm so busy...

DETROW: The White House thinks an additional 30 million people who haven't signed up yet could be eligible, so Landrieu says a big part of his job is selling this. That means selling to the people who might need these programs and selling the broader idea of the act to the public.

LANDRIEU: The idea is to make it simple for the public to get the benefit that the president says that they so desperately need, which is just access to knowledge, which you cannot have if you don't have technology these days.

DETROW: You said a couple of weeks ago when you were talking to reporters that you can make an argument that this act is as big of a deal as the New Deal or as the Eisenhower interstate, and I think that would be surprising to a lot of people. People would say that's a pretty big claim to make.

LANDRIEU: I don't think it's just a claim. I mean, it is factually true. $1.2 trillion to rebuild the roads, the bridges, the airports, the ports, the waterways, high-speed internet, clean air, clean water, clean energy economy - is, in real dollars, as big as building the interstate system and what happened during the New Deal. You could argue whether those was a little bit bigger, but we've only had three times in history where we've done that, so it's really kind of a silly argument to have. Right now, making sure that everybody in the country has access to the internet is like electrifying the country. That's how transformative it is, because it's not narrow or limited. It is actually ubiquitous, meaning it is everywhere all the time.

DETROW: That will take time to establish. Biden is up for reelection next year, so Landrieu will keep going as fast as he can.

LANDRIEU: This is kind of like the tortoise and the hare story. And we're the tortoise in this story.

DETROW: Maybe just a very energetic tortoise.

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DETROW: The Infrastructure Act spend $65 billion on internet access - that's the connectivity program - and then much more to build new broadband lines in places without high-speed internet. It's the sort of thing people like Kathryn de Wit have been calling for for years. De Wit is the project director for the Pew Charitable Trusts' Broadband Access Initiative. I talked to de Wit to get a sense of what's working so far and what isn't, and I started by asking her what she makes of Landrieu's claim that the Infrastructure Act rivals the New Deal.

KATHRYN DE WIT: I do - although, to be fair, you know, maybe this is me drinking the Kool-Aid that I'm selling. But, no, I do believe that. But I think what is noteworthy about this moment that we're in is that we see folks moving away - policymakers in particular - moving away from this idea that access to the internet is a luxury. And instead, they are viewing it as a necessity. So that's really where I think the analogy rings true and plays out.

DETROW: I guess the part that I'm having a hard time with, you know, isn't the fact that this is a big problem that needs to be solved but that this idea of, yes, this is a necessity, this is just as important as other basic utilities, wasn't addressed much sooner than it is now because it just seems to have been a fact of life for at least 15 years, probably more than that.

DE WIT: The pandemic fundamentally changed the way that folks understood what the absence of connections actually meant. When we saw students doing their homework in a Taco Bell parking lot or heard stories about teachers driving hours to make sure that kids had their paper packets of homework because they didn't have internet access available to download things in the home, I think what that brought home was just the sheer inconvenience and then inequities that came along with that inconvenience and with that lack of connectivity.

DETROW: The day that we spent with Landrieu, he was being very blunt about the fact that they need to get more people to sign up. The administration thinks as many as 48 million households could be eligible. Nineteen million people have signed up, but it's less than half of who could be eligible right now. What do you think the challenges are to getting that number higher?

DE WIT: Research and surveys have found that just about half of eligible households actually know that the program exists. So we certainly have a lot more work to do when it comes to marketing and outreach. But I think more to the point, this program is hard to sign up for. It's a multistep verification process that can take several days. What folks on the ground have found is that it often takes someone sitting next to this person who is trying to sign up, really walking them through that process.

DETROW: So the $30 subsidies are the immediate end of this. And the federal government is spending something like $500 million a month already paying out these subsidies for the 19 million odd people already in this program. Then there's the second half of it - the much more expensive, much more longer-term half - of expanding broadband infrastructure across the country to places where the internet is slower. How important is that aspect of things when you're talking about closing the digital divide?

DE WIT: Essential. I mean, you really can't have one without the other. And it is important, I think, for folks to understand that this benefit does go to the internet service provider. And that's important because it helps stabilize an internet service provider's revenue, and it helps increase their customer base. In other words, it decreases their risk and uncertainty associated with expanding into markets that have high concentrations of low-income populations.

DETROW: What are you worried most about as you look at the promise of these projects and the possible reality?

DE WIT: States are heading into a really essential phase of their funding development. They're actually designing their programs right now. They're figuring out how they're going to spend this money. They're figuring out the award structure, project areas. They have to be able to know that ACP is going to be there, that those funds are going to be there. So if there is uncertainty with ACP, if we're worried that that's going to run out in less than a year, that introduces a huge risk and a significant uncertainty to a process that's already very complex.

DETROW: That was Kathryn de Wit, director for the Pew Charitable Trusts Broadband Access Initiative. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.