People in Washington have been trying to fix the country’s digital divide for years. But the COVID-19 pandemic is pushing the stars into alignment for real action on broadband access and affordability in 2021.
COVID-19 kept tens of millions of office workers and schoolchildren at home, with a broadband line becoming their primary connection to the outside world. A Pew study in March found that 31% of Americans are “almost constantly online.” Meanwhile, 77 million Americans lack adequate internet service at home, says public interest group Free Press, and just two-thirds of people in the nation’s bottom income bracket can access the internet from home.
Congress has already included $3.2 billion in emergency funding for broadband access in the stimulus bill this year. But the big show for broadband stimulus will come in the bill that emerges from President Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan–the American Jobs Plan.
The plan proposes to fund all kinds of infrastructure, among them $174 billion for electric vehicles, $50 billion for semiconductor manufacturing and research, and $100 billion to build out broadband networks. “[I]t will bring affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to every American, including the more than 35 percent of rural Americans who lack access to broadband at minimally acceptable speeds,” the plan reads.
Now, Biden will work with Democrats and Republican members of Congress to turn the plan into an actual bill. Broadband expert Harold Feld at the public interest group Public Knowledge told me that that bill will likely resemble the core provisions in the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, introduced in early March by Senators Amy Klobuchar, co-chair of the Senate Broadband Caucus, and House Majority Whip James Clyburn. The bill proposes spending $94 billion to incentivize broadband providers to build new high-speed broadband infrastructure, with the agreement that those providers will offer affordable internet access. The bill also provides money to states for broadband adoption programs.
But Biden’s plan suggests the White House wants to go further. That could mean an eventual broadband law would try to increase competition in broadband markets by preempting state and local laws prohibiting nontraditional players such as electrical co-ops from selling broadband service. The plan also suggests Biden may want to do something about controlling the prices ISPs charge for broadband.
Democrats and Republicans should be able to find plenty of common ground in the core parts of the bill. Members of both parties are hearing from their constituents about the shortcomings of broadband service now that remote working and schooling have become central parts of life. Other issues will have to be hashed out.
Democrats and Republicans will likely disagree on what constitutes adequate broadband service. Democrats will argue that the government should incentivize broadband providers to lay the more expensive fiber cable needed for faster speeds. Republicans, with their new-found fiscal conservatism in the Biden era, will argue for lower subsidies to incentivize less expensive broadband network upgrades. Many Republicans believe that the current definition of broadband used by the Federal Communications Commission–25 megabits per second downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads–is sufficient.
The vast majority 0f existing U.S. broadband services offer high download speeds and low upload speeds. For many years and most users, that dynamic mirrored our usage habits. Streaming video, which was most people’s most demanding use of home broadband throughput before the pandemic, requires only fast download speed, since you simply watch the video and don’t send a meaningful amount of data back up into the network. During the pandemic we certainly streamed a lot of video, but we also did plenty of distance learning, remote work, telemedicine, and video calling, all of which are bidirectional forms of communication that rely heavily on upload speed. Democrats believe these new habits are here to stay, so they want broadband to be defined as both fast and symmetric (upload speeds equal with download speeds) at 100 Mbps in both directions.
Harold Feld, Public Knowledge
The biggest expenditure of building out broadband to rural areas is pulling whatever wire you’re pulling over all that terrain.”
In fact, Comcast does everything possible to downplay the importance of upload speed in the way it markets its Xfinity residential broadband service. The Xfinity website lists only download speeds to define its tiers of service. You have to dig deep into the fine print to find the upload speeds, as Ars Technica‘s Jon Brodkin notes. TV.com reports that Xfinity’s three top-selling plans offer speeds of 25 Mbps down and 2 Mbps up, 100 Mbps down and 5 Mbps up, and 1,000 Mbps down and 35 Mbps up, respectively. The website highspeedinternet.com reports that Xfinity delivers average download speeds of 135 Mbps and upload speeds of just 10 Mbps.
Telcos such as AT&T and Verizon oppose symmetric service because the only way they can deliver it is over fiber cable, and laying new fiber lines is expensive. The cable and phone companies would prefer to qualify for government subsidies by upgrading the performance of their existing DSL and copper-wire broadband, rather than laying new fiber cable to reach fast, symmetric speeds. They argue that this would deliver a real improvement over the slow or nonexistent broadband service seen in many rural and low-income areas today.
“We’re seeing a lot of Republicans echoing that talking point,” Feld says. The Big ISP lobby is well-funded, well-lawyered, and influential.
But this is a short-sighted view that doesn’t take into account the evolution of broadband applications, argues Anna Read, senior research officer with the broadband access initiative at The Pew Charitable Trusts. “Americans are using more data and more data-intensive applications on a more regular basis,” she says. “So we’re looking toward investment in infrastructure and highlighting not just current needs but where those needs will be by the time that infrastructure comes online.”
The lobbyists’ argument also doesn’t make economic sense, adds Public Knowledge’s Feld.
“The biggest expenditure of building out broadband to rural areas is pulling whatever wire you’re pulling over all that terrain,” Feld told me. “So the cost of building a fiber network is not going to be that much different from extending an existing cable network or extending an existing DSL phone network. It’s a question of what kind of a thing do you pull in the first place.”
The trade group that represents the big wireless providers and cable companies, CTIA, did not respond to several requests for comment.
Broadband for all
Before the pandemic, there was a lot of awareness of the lack of adequate broadband in rural areas, but it took the pandemic to highlight the fact that there are many pockets in suburban and urban areas where broadband is poor.
“It’s not that broadband isn’t available in those places—it’s that it hasn’t been upgraded,” Siefer says. “So you can find in particular AT&T and CenturyLink where they still have their old DSL [phone-line-based broadband] and haven’t upgraded it, and you’re looking at 768 Kbps [service].”
And regardless of the old infrastructure and slow speeds in those underserved pockets, the service is still expensive and out of reach for many lower-income people.
“The pandemic drew all sorts of attention to the fact that it’s not just about availability, it’s about affordability, too,” says Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.
Both Democrats and Republicans support providing funding to broadband network operators.
“The state of Ohio, with its Republican governor, is funding a new wireless network in east Cleveland, because they don’t have any other affordable options,” Siefer says.
Both Democrats and Republicans support providing funding to broadband network operators to make internet access available to more people. But the parties part ways on the question of whether an infrastructure bill should include a direct-to-consumer subsidy to help them afford the service delivered through the upgraded pipes. Democrats argue that the infrastructure isn’t much good if people can’t afford the service. Republicans traditionally flinch at the words “entitlement program” or “safety net.”
Republicans did support the $3.2 billion in broadband service and equipment subsidies in the 2021 COVID-19 relief bill. But providing such funding on an ongoing basis is likely a different story.
And Democrats want to go still further. They’ll push for additional subsidies to pay for digital literacy education, perhaps through community colleges, to teach people how to take full advantage of the internet service.
The Democrats might even argue for subsidies to help people afford equipment—such as tablets and laptops—they’ll need to access the internet. Those direct-to-individual subsidies will almost certainly be a source of partisan disagreement.
Even though the government is willing to subsidize the extension of broadband networks into rural or low-income areas, the reality is the owners of those networks may never be able to make the profits in those areas their shareholders want. It’s possible that noncommercial, not-for-profit broadband providers may serve those markets better in the long run. The Biden plan suggests that noncommercial providers such as electric co-ops and local governments may be better suited to the job. Unlike the big ISPs, their goal is merely to stay in business, not to produce ever-increasing profits.
But to date, such noncommercial providers have had trouble surviving. Big ISPs such as AT&T and Comcast have lobbied states and cities to block their progress. In fact, at the beginning of 2021, 18 states had laws prohibiting noncommercial or government-affiliated broadband providers. But that number is going down.
“Over the past few years a number of states have passed laws and/or clarified existing laws to allow electric cooperatives to provide retail broadband service,” says the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Read. Washington State was the most recent to do so, reducing the number of states with such laws to 17.
Read says that electric co-ops were crucial in Tennessee’s and Georgia’s broadband programs to extend access into rural and unserved areas.
Congress may decide to preempt those state laws that remain on the books. It might also make it easier for nontraditional providers to apply for government subsidies to extend or upgrade their networks.
“We’ve done this before–in the Telecommunications Act of 1996,” Feld points out. He refers to Section 253 of the Act, which preempted states and localities from barring the entry of competitive phone-service providers. Before the law, states often granted exclusive franchises to incumbent carriers.
Even the incumbent ISPs would like to see a bill get passed, because they like government subsidies.
On the whole, Democrats and Republicans both have reasons to like the broadband infrastructure plan outlined in Biden’s American Jobs Plan. Even the incumbent ISPs would like to see a bill get passed, because they like government subsidies that help them offset their network build costs. The prospect of the government subsidizing broadband service for consumers also appeals to broadband providers. It means they get paid.
Of course, Biden’s broadband infrastructure proposals are just one piece of a much larger infrastructure bill. Even if the two political parties can come to an agreement on the sticky parts, the fate of the proposals may depend on high-level political horse-trading between Senate Republicans and the Biden White House. And it doesn’t help that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has shown almost no interest in improving broadband infrastructure.
On the other hand, the Biden infrastructure plan is very popular. A recent New York Times/SurveyMonkey poll showed that 64% of Americans support it. And the broadband component of the plan was the second-most popular (behind upgrades to roads and bridges); 78% said they supported it, including a majority of Republicans.
That popular support might be the one thing that keeps the players at the table long enough to get to “Yes.”