WASHINGTON — Vice President Kamala Harris will lead the Biden administration’s unprecedented effort to ensure every American has access to affordable, high-speed Internet.

President Biden announced that she would take the lead on the issue during his first address to a slimmed-down joint session of Congress, where he touted his proposal to create new jobs through investment in expanding Internet access. Biden said his Americans Jobs Plan, which includes $100 billion for broadband expansion, aims to ensure that rural Americans who do not have access to fast Internet connections can get online.

Kamala Harris

Vice President Kamala Harris Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

“It’s going to help our kids and business succeed in the 21st century economy,” Biden said. “And I’m asking the vice president to lead this effort, if she will, because I know it will get done.”

The announcement signals that closing the digital divide is a top priority for the administration during the pandemic. Bringing more Americans online has long been a goal for the Democratic Party, but the subject has taken on greater urgency during the pandemic because people have grown more reliant on the Internet to participate in daily life, from virtual school to telemedicine appointments. Biden’s push for record-breaking broadband funding follows recent stimulus bills, which included billions to bring more students online and help low income Americans pay their Internet bills.

“Putting the vice president in charge of the administration’s broadband efforts shows that the president considers closing the digital divide of utmost importance,” said Gigi Sohn, a Georgetown University Institute for Technology & Policy distinguished fellow and former counselor to Democratic Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler.

Harris is taking on the broadband work at a critical point, as the world is watching to see whether she emerges as the clear heir apparent to lead the Democratic Party after Biden. Biden also announced that she would lead the administration’s work on immigration, and he has kept his promise to make sure Harris is the last person in the room when important decisions are being made.

“Among other things, he’s already put the vice president in charge of handling the immigration crisis, and to me, that means that he trusts her to tackle big challenges,” Sohn said.

Blair Levin, the former executive director of the Obama-era FCC’s national broadband plan, said the move underscores the Biden administration’s recognition of Americans’ impediments to accessing the Internet.

“It means that the Biden administration understands that it is an ecosystem problem that involves not just networks but also issues such as technology leadership and digital equity and inclusion,” he said.

Harris, the nation’s first vice president who is of South Asian descent, Black and female, has used her role to discuss matters with greater effect on people of color, and there are racial divides in who has a home broadband connection. Pew Research Center reported in February that 80 percent of white U.S. adults say they have a home connection, compared with 71 percent of Black adults and 65 percent of Hispanic adults.

Harris also may benefit from her work experience in California, where she encountered tech issues as a U.S. senator, state attorney general and San Francisco district attorney. Harris is no stranger to tech policy. Her previous work on issues such as privacy and her connections to influential people in the tech industry could be beneficial.

Broadband may be one area where Democrats can find common ground with Republicans. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., cited broadband expansion as one of the areas of agreement between Republicans and Democrats in his rebuttal to Biden’s address last night, but he generally criticized Biden’s infrastructure plan.

“Democrats want a partisan wish list,” he said. “They won’t even build bridges to build bridges.” Republican senators released a framework of their infrastructure plan, which included $65 billion for broadband, significantly less than what Biden has proposed.

Usually mentioned quickly in such annual speeches, tech issues scored significant airtime during Biden’s address. Biden also spoke about the need to maintain American competitiveness in fields such as artificial intelligence and the need for greater public investment in technologies such as advanced batteries, computer chips and biotechnology.

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