Does America Want to Invest in Broadband?

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, April 9, 2021

Weekly Digest

Does America Want to Invest in Broadband?

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

Round-Up for the Week of April 5-9, 2021

Kevin Taglang

On March 31, President Joe Biden traveled to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to unveil his American Jobs Plan, and what he touts as a once-in-a-generation investment to rebuild the country's infrastructure. The plan calls for investing $100 billion to ensure everyone in America has access to high-speed broadband infrastructure. In a White House fact sheet outlining the American Jobs Plan, the Biden administration recalls the national effort to bring affordable access to electricity to all through the Rural Electrification Act of 1936. In 1936, nearly 90 percent of farms lacked electric power because the costs to get electricity to rural areas were prohibitive. By 1950, due to the Rural Electrification Act, close to 80 percent of U.S. farms had electric service. 

"Broadband internet is the new electricity," the fact sheet reads. "It is necessary for Americans to do their jobs, to participate equally in school learning, health care, and to stay connected." But today, millions of people live in areas where there is no broadband infrastructure that provides minimally acceptable speeds. Americans in rural areas and on tribal lands particularly lack adequate access. And, in part because the United States has some of the highest broadband prices among OECD countries, millions of Americans can’t use broadband internet even if the infrastructure exists where they live because they can't afford it. In urban areas, there is a stark digital divide: a much higher percentage of White families use home broadband internet than Black or Latino families. 

President Biden believes we can bring affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to every American. The question now is: are we going to connect everyone in this decade? 

The Proposal

The Biden broadband proposal would invest in rural and Tribal communities, including by providing 100 percent broadband coverage, rebuild crumbling infrastructure like roads, bridges, and water systems, provide research and development funding to land grant universities, and position the U.S. agricultural sector to lead the shift to net-zero emissions while providing new economic opportunities for farmers.

Build high-speed broadband infrastructure to reach 100 percent coverage. 

The President’s plan prioritizes building “future proof” broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas so that we finally reach 100 percent high-speed broadband coverage. It also prioritizes support for broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, and co-operatives—providers with less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities. Moreover, it ensures funds are set aside for infrastructure on tribal lands and that tribal nations are consulted in program administration. Along the way, it will create good-paying jobs with labor protections and the right to organize and bargain collectively.

Promote transparency and competition. 

President Biden’s plan will promote price transparency and competition among internet providers, including by lifting barriers that prevent municipally-owned or affiliated providers and rural electric co-ops from competing on an even playing field with private providers, and requiring internet providers to clearly disclose the prices they charge.

Reduce the cost of broadband internet service and promote more widespread adoption.

President Biden believes that building out broadband infrastructure isn’t enough. We also must ensure that every American who wants to can afford high-quality and reliable broadband internet. While the President recognizes that individual subsidies to cover internet costs may be needed in the short term, he believes continually providing subsidies to cover the cost of overpriced internet service is not the right long-term solution for consumers or taxpayers. Americans pay too much for the internet – much more than people in many other countries – and the President is committed to working with Congress to find a solution to reduce internet prices for all Americans, increase adoption in both rural and urban areas, hold providers accountable, and save taxpayer money.

The Opposition

The proposal has not been met with unanimous praise as President Biden acknowledged in a speech this week: "Now, since I announced this plan, I’ve heard my Republican friends say that it’s—many of them say it’s too big. They say, 'Why not focus on traditional infrastructure, fix what we’ve already got — the roads and the highways that exist and the bridges?'”

NCTA, the lobbying organization for large cable companies like Comcast, said the plan suggests “the solution is either to prioritize government-owned networks or micromanage private networks.” NCTA pointed specifically to the suggestion of government intervention to bring down prices. USTelecom, which represents telephone companies such as AT&T, said its members share Biden’s goals and they are ready to build, but emphasized that the policy should incentivize private investment.

And on Thursday, Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr penned an op-ed for The Hill noting the above objections. He also criticized the plan for allowing funds to upgrade communities that already have high-speed Internet services so that they can receive the superfast “future proof” connections of tomorrow. And he called the plan's distribution of funding "haphazard."

On April 1, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, "I’m going to fight them every step of the way."

Next Step: Legislation

In a speech this week, President Biden said he's ready to work with Congress on his infrastructure plan. 

Democrats, Republicans will have ideas about what they like and what they don’t like about our plan. That’s—that’s a good thing. That’s the American way. That’s the way democracy works. Debate is welcome. Compromise is inevitable. Changes are certain. In the next few weeks, the Vice President and I will be meeting with Republicans and Democrats to hear from everyone. And we’ll be listening. We’ll be open to good ideas and good-faith negotiations. 

But the President also stressed that inaction is not an option.

Back in March, all 32 Democratic members of the House Commerce Committee co-sponsored the Leading Infrastructure For Tomorrow’s America Act, or LIFT America Act (H.R. 1848). That legislation may well end up being the vehicle for President Biden's infrastructure plan. The LIFT America Act includes:

  • $80 billion for the deployment of secure and resilient high-speed broadband to expand access nationwide by funding connections to the internet in unserved and underserved rural, suburban, and urban areas, facilitating crucial connectivity that will lead to stronger small businesses, more jobs, and a powerful economy in communities that have been left behind. This investment will allow for 100 percent broadband deployment throughout the nation.
  • $9.3 billion for broadband affordability and adoption to ensure that everyone can afford internet service and have the knowledge and tools to use the internet in ways that meet their needs.
  • $5 billion in federal funding for low-interest financing of broadband deployment with a new program that would allow eligible entities to apply for secured loans, lines of credit, or loan guarantees to finance broadband infrastructure build out projects.

The House Commerce Committee held its first legislative hearing on the LIFT Act on March 22. No votes on the bill have been scheduled yet.

We are also keeping an eye on the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act (H.R. 1783), legislation spearheaded by House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) and Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). That bill would:

Encourage Universal Broadband Access

  • Authorize $80 billion to deploy high-speed broadband infrastructure nationwide;
  • Allocate $5 billion over five years for low-interest financing of broadband deployment through a new secured loan program; and
  • Establish a new office within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to ensure efficient use of federal money.

Ensure Internet Affordability

  • Require an affordable option for internet service plans offered on the newly-built infrastructure funded by the legislation;
  • Authorize an additional $6 billion for the recently established Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund, which provides a $50 monthly discount on the internet plans of low-income Americans anywhere in the country, or $75 for consumers on tribal lands; and 
  • Direct the Federal Communication Commission to collect and publicize data on prices charged for broadband service throughout the country.

Promote Internet Adoption

  • Provide over $1 billion to establish grant programs for states to close gaps in broadband adoption, as well as digital inclusion projects for organizations and local communities to implement;
  • Include $2 billion to enable students without internet at home to participate in remote learning; and
  • Authorize funding for Wi-Fi on school buses so students can stay connected, especially in rural areas where longer bus rides are common.

That bill, too, awaits votes in both chambers. 

Public Support

Addressing what makes the foundation of a good economy President Biden said,

Ask folks in rural America, where more than 35 percent of the people lack a reliable, high-speed Internet, limiting their ability to conduct business or engage in remote learning for their schools.  Ask them whether investing in Internet access will lead to better jobs in town, new markets for farmers, and better opportunities for their kids.

In recent polling on the American Jobs Plan, over 80 percent of those surveyed expressed support for expanding broadband internet access across the country. Seventy percent or more of Republicans and Independents support the idea. These survey results match other recent research:

  • In September 2020, the Internet Innovation Alliance reported that 62 percent of U.S. voters said they wanted Congress to use federal funds to expand broadband internet network infrastructure to reach those living in areas not currently serviced by a broadband internet provider “immediately.” At the time, over 90% of voters said it’s a problem that parts of rural America lack broadband access, with nearly two-thirds (63%) saying it is a “major” problem.
  • In January 2021, a poll of Kentucky residents found they support expanding broadband internet in rural areas and would support lawmakers passing bills that increase broadband access. Sixty-nine percent of respondents believed access to broadband was critical, and 60 percent of respondents in rural areas felt access to broadband was a problem in their communities.

Broadband is the infrastructure of opportunity. Americans get that and are willing to make the public investment needed to ensure everyone has access to high-speed broadband infrastructure. Now is the time for policymakers to follow the lead of their constituents.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

Apr 12—Why States Must Regulate Broadband (Communications Workers of America)

Apr 13—Equity, Access and the Digital Divide (Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council)

Apr 14—ReConnect Regulation Webinar (USDA)

Apr 21—Emergency Broadband Benefit Webinar for Consumer Groups (USAC)

Apr 22—April 2020 Open Commission Meeting (FCC)

Apr 26—National Supply Chain Integrity Joint Workshop (FCC)

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

© Benton Institute for Broadband & Society 2021. 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 Institute
for Broadband & Society
727 Chicago Avenue
Evanston, IL 60202
headlines AT benton DOT org

Share this edition:

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society Benton Institute for Broadband & Society Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Broadband Delivers Opportunities and Strengthens Communities

By Kevin Taglang.