2020 Candidates Offer Plans to Extend the Reach of Broadband

Benton Foundation

Friday, August 9, 2019

Weekly Digest

2020 Candidates Offer Plans to Extend the Reach of  Broadband

You’re reading the Benton Foundation’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) telecommunications stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of August 5-9, 2019

Robbie McBeath

Two 2020 presidential candidates released plans for investing in rural America this week. And broadband plays a key role in both. Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and  Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) are the latest candidates to stress the importance of bringing broadband internet access service everywhere in the U.S.

Warren’s Plan:  A Public Option for Broadband

Senator Warren’s plan to invest in rural America is massive, including policies to improve access to healthcare, reduce student loan debt, and build a new farm economy. When it comes to broadband, Sen. Warren offers an ambitious, progressive agenda, drawing parallels between the modern digital divide and efforts to expand access to electricity in the 1930s. “Just like the electric companies eighty years ago, today’s biggest internet service providers (ISPs) have left large parts of the country unserved or dramatically underserved,” she says.

Warren criticizes both large ISPs and the Federal Communications Commission, alluding to past buildout subsidies from the Connect America Fund. Warren says that large ISPs have:

deliberately restricted competition, kept prices high, and used their armies of lobbyists to convince state legislatures to ban municipalities from building their own public networks. Meanwhile, the federal government has shoveled billions of taxpayer dollars to private ISPs in an effort to expand broadband to remote areas, but those providers have done the bare minimum with these resources — offering internet speeds well below the FCC minimum. This ends when I’m President. I will make sure every home in America has a fiber broadband connection at a price families can afford. That means publicly-owned and operated networks — and no giant ISPs running away with taxpayer dollars.

Elizabeth Warren
Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)

Sen Warren proposes to:

  • Make it clear in federal statute that municipalities have the right to build their own broadband networks. Warren would preempt state laws hindering or banning municipalities from building their own broadband infrastructure and return this power to local governments.
  • Create an Office of Broadband Access in a new Department of Economic Development that will manage an $85 billion federal grant program to expand broadband access across the country. 
    • Only electricity and telephone cooperatives, non-profit organizations, tribes, cities, counties, and other state subdivisions will be eligible for grants from this fund — and all grants will be used to build the fiber infrastructure necessary to bring high-speed broadband to unserved areas, underserved areas, or areas with minimal competition. 
    • The federal government would pay 90 cents on the dollar for construction under these grants. In exchange, applicants will be required to offer high-speed public broadband directly to every home in their application area. 
    • Applicants would have to offer at least one plan with 100 Mbps/100 Mbps speeds and one discount internet plan for low-income customers with a prepaid feature or a low monthly rate. 
    • Of these funds, $5 billion will be set aside specifically for 100% federal grants to tribal nations to expand broadband access on Native American lands. In addition to necessary “last mile” infrastructure, tribes will be able to apply for funds to build the missing 8,000 miles of middle mile fiber on tribal lands.
  • Appoint FCC Commissioners who will restore net neutrality. 
    • In addition, require all telecommunications services to contribute fairly into the Universal Service Fund to shore up essential universal service programs that provide subsidies to low-income individuals, schools, and libraries to increase broadband adoption, including signing into law and building on the Tribal Connect Act, so that the U.S. can work toward every tribal library having broadband access.
  • Bolster the FCC’s Office of Native Affairs and Policy, providing it with dedicated, increased funding to expand its capacity.
  • Prohibit the range of sneaky maneuvers giant private providers use to unfairly squeeze out competition, hold governments hostage, and drive up prices. Sen Warren wants to:
    • Return control of utility poles and conduits to cities,
    • Prohibit landlords from making side deals with private ISPs to limit choices in their properties, 
    • Ban companies from limiting access to wires inside buildings,
    • Make sure that all new buildings are fiber-ready so that any network can deliver service there, and 
    • Enact “Dig Once” policies to require that conduit is laid anytime the ground is opened for a public infrastructure project.
  • Ensure every person has the skills to fully participate in our online economy. The Digital Equity Act would invest $2.5 billion over ten years to help states develop digital equity plans and launch digital inclusion projects.

Warren’s proposal presents a massive federal investment in broadband compared to current levels. Vox’s Shirin Ghaffary notes that the FCC currently provides about $4.6 billion a year in subsidies for rural broadband networks, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Services provides around $800 million per year in loans and grants. 

The proposal caught the attention of FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, who subtweeted Warren: 

Little dispute @FCC is working hard to facilitate private sector broadband deployment to all Americans. I know it’s silly season in DC, but any proposal that squeezes out private sector, favors one technology, promotes overbuilding, or pushes greater socialism is nonstarter.

O’Rielly didn’t explain why “overbuilding,” known as “competition” in everyday parlance, is celebrated in just about any other industry, but shunned in telecommunications.

Gillibrand’s Plan: A Partner in the White House

Senator Gillibrand’s Rebuilding Rural America for Our Future Plan would have the federal government work in partnership with local communities, through grant programs and cross-agency task forces. “As president, I will launch a national partnership to rally the public, philanthropic, and private sectors to the task of empowering local leaders to build a rural America that can thrive for the next 100 years and beyond.”

Gillibrand pointed to “transformational innovation,” like precision agriculture, which she says will ensure rural America “shares in the opportunity of the digital economy.”

Kirsten Gillibrand
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)

If president, Gillibrand says she will:

  • Invest $60 billion to connect all rural Americans to high-speed Internet, including next-generation gigabit systems, by working with private providers, states, rural electric cooperatives, broadband cooperatives, and community broadband networks. The investment would be directed by detailed, accurate broadband service maps that reflect actual service availability.
  • Create a Digital Extension Service to advise and assist farmers, rural entrepreneurs, and community leaders in adopting digital technologies for precision agriculture, e-commerce, telemedicine, high-tech manufacturing, and opportunities for attracting remote workers as new residents. 
    • The Digital Extension Service would work with 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA) to inspire and mentor young people across rural America in the application of STEM education.
  • Create a $750 million Rural Tech Skills initiative to fund training partnerships between community colleges, community-based and labor organizations, and employers to prepare the rural workforce for tech jobs across industries like clean energy, advanced manufacturing, cybersecurity, and health IT.
  • Create a White House Council on a Cooperative Economy to ensure all federal loan, contracting, and technical assistance programs are accessible by cooperatives 
    • Sen. Gillibrand would increase funding for the Rural Cooperative Development Program to $40 million per year.

Other 2020 Rural Broadband Plans

The plans from Senators Warren and Gillibrand are the most detailed policy proposals we have seen from 2020 candidates when it comes to expanding access to broadband. But other major candidates have called for expanding broadband as part of large investments into rural America. 

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg also released a rural plan this week, focused on securing health equality between rural and urban communities. Mayor Pete discussed broadband in a section related to investing in telehealth. He says he plans to: "Massively expand coverage of high-speed broadband Internet across the country; Help health providers purchase and implement the technology necessary to provide telehealth services by doubling funding for the FCC’s Rural Health Care Program to $1 billion annually; Ensure that expansion of telehealth services is accompanied by investments in quality of care, and; Expand the types of care settings that can receive reimbursement for telehealth services."

Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) has been a key legislator in efforts to expand broadband access. In March, Sen. Klobuchar unveiled a trillion-dollar plan to build America’s infrastructure that includes universal internet service by 2022. The proposal promised to help close the urban-rural divide by creating accurate broadband maps to identify areas that lack adequate access, focus on bringing high-speed internet infrastructure to areas most in need, and provide greater incentives for existing providers to use funds to upgrade their networks to cover unserved and underserved areas. 

In July, former-Vice President Joe Biden (D-DE) released a rural plan that included a $20 billion investment in broadband infrastructure. The so-called “Biden Plan” will triple the RUS’ Community Connect broadband grants and “partner with municipal utilities to bring cutting-edge broadband connections to communities across rural America.”

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) unveiled his rural plan in May, claiming that he will expand high-speed internet access to every America -- particularly in rural areas. He tweeted at the time, “Today, 39 percent of Americans living in rural areas lack internet access. This is the year 2019. We need to expand high-speed Internet access and broadband services to every American.”


Although extending broadband’s reach may not be a top-tier election issue yet, this week’s announcements do show that candidates understand the role broadband can play in revitalizing communities, particularly rural ones, going forward. Candidates are showcasing their belief that universal broadband is integral to adequately address issues such as healthcare inequality and economic opportunity and development. We look forward to seeing additional proposals from the rest of the 2020 field, Democrats and Republicans alike. 

To stay up to date on all broadband policy news, be sure to subscribe to our daily Headlines email newsletter

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads

ICYMI from Benton

Benton, a non-profit, operating foundation, believes that communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities to bridge our divides. Our goal is to bring open, affordable, high-capacity broadband to all people in the U.S. to ensure a thriving democracy.

© Benton Foundation 2019. Redistribution of this email publication - both internally and externally - is encouraged if it includes this copyright statement.

For subscribe/unsubscribe info, please email headlinesATbentonDOTorg

Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Foundation
727 Chicago Avenue
Evanston, IL 60202
headlines AT benton DOT org

Share this edition:

Benton Foundation Benton Foundation Benton Foundation

Benton Foundation


By Robbie McBeath.