Digital Infrastructure Projects May Not Be a Coronavirus Recession Quick Fix, But Could Boost Long-term Economy, Experts Say

Three economic stimuluses have already passed through Congress and become law since the novel coronavirus reached America's doorstep—breakneck pace for leaders in Washington.

Although a fourth package is still a long way out, Democrats are already eyeing investments in digital infrastructure—among other things—as a way to help the economy recover once it finally awakes from its long slumber of social distancing and staying home nearly 24/7.

"The initiatives that we have in terms of infrastructure relate directly to the challenge at hand," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters on a conference call Monday. "We have an opportunity to do something that would have an impact as soon as possible."

But with the pandemic forcing many companies to either work remotely for months on end or close up shop entirely, the economy is likely to change. And the end goals laid out by Democrats—expanding access to things like clean water, tele-health, remote teaching, broadband internet and 5G—are objectives that could require time-consuming solutions but yield long-term benefits, some economists said.

They note that the concept of digital infrastructure spending directly relates to the ongoing pandemic and the country's ability to better survive economically through the next one, something health experts and officials have warned could come sooner rather than later. Additional waves of the coronavirus could come later this year or even next year, increasing the potential that business and everyday aspects of life—like education and health—will again be forced to operate remotely.

Democrats' biggest obstacle to approving their desired digital infrastructure ideas is their Republican colleagues, who are more focused on traditional infrastructure investments, such as roads and bridges, or have cast doubt on the need for another stimulus. And when Democrats and President Donald Trump tried to strike a multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure deal last year, it ended in dramatic fashion.

Here is what some experts say about the prospect of a future digital infrastructure package designed to help the American economy recover from the invisible enemy that's waged war on the globe's entire population.

digital infrastructure coronavirus stimulus
Attendees and workers chat beneath a '5G' logo at the Quectel booth at CES 2020 at the Las Vegas Convention Center on January 8 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty

Douglas Harris, senior fellow on education policy at Brookings Institute and economics professor at Tulane University

"It would be hard to make this happen fast enough that it's likely to have an impact during the pandemic. It's more of a long-term prospect than a short-term one... The whole economy is increasingly moving toward [digital], and you have a digital divide where not everyone can access that."

The Federal Elections Commission estimates that some 21 million Americans lack access to high-speed internet while 15 percent of U.S. households with school-age children lack access, according to a Pew Research analysis. Those numbers are exacerbated in lower-income, black and minority households.

"It would also help to create some additional resilience and protection from future viruses."

Celine McNicholas, director of government affairs at the center-left Economic Policy Institute.

"Those would be longer term. Part of it would be updating systems that we need to rely on in moments like this. Ultimately, there will be traditional infrastructure work—laying lines, things like that, in order for those to be executed."

"Time is of the essence, so designing something in a way that piggybacks off of existing investments is important, but also making smart investments for overall future development projects is really important."

Evan Kohn, chief business officer of the conversational automated innovation company Pypestream and on the Forbes Technology Council

"COVID-19 has illuminated many of the global economy's shortcomings, but telecommunications stands to benefit from 5G's potential expedited adoption... With faster, more improved data transfer, society can build out better solutions in wireless healthcare and smarter cities. From this, Conversational AI could be seamlessly woven into the fabric of data transactions, giving consumers direct access to critical information."

Dean Baker, senior economist at the center-left Center for Economic and Policy Research

"That's something you could probably do very, very quickly. With digital infrastructure, you're basically filling in. You have rural areas that don't have internet access, but I think the biggest part would be ensuring, say, everyone in Philadelphia, New York and Chicago has great internet service at an affordable price. It's not a question of drawing up blueprints and going over environmental regulations."

Marc Scribner, senior fellow at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute

"We don't yet have any idea how demand for infrastructure will be altered in the coming months, let alone over the long run," Scribner wrote in a blog post earlier this month about traditional infrastructure measures. "If telecommuting remains high and stable, highway investments that are supposed to be with us for 50 years should be adjusted down... There are few 'shovel-ready' projects."