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Broadband Infusion in Biden Plan Faces Challenges

President Joe Biden boards plane to Pittsburgh to announce American Jobs Plan
President Joe Biden boards Air Force One ahead of a trip to Pittsburgh, where he would introduce his “American Jobs Plan.” (Image credit: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

Although broadband proposals occupy only four paragraphs in the White House’s 25-page summary of President Joe Biden’s “American Jobs Plan” — the official name for the “infrastructure overhaul” unveiled March 31 — those high-level visions immediately generated intense controversy regarding their implementation. Analysts expect heated economic and political furor as the $100 billion proposal for federal support of broadband expansion, including funding for municipal broadband systems, high-speed mandates and possible price controls, works its way through Congress.

One key goal of the plan is to assure universal broadband access, especially high-speed availability to unserved rural and underserved urban areas. 5G technology will be part of that solution, but the initial vision did not address specifics for wireless delivery in the master plan.  

Even before Biden formally unveiled the proposal at a Pittsburgh speech — in the heart of old rust-belt America — Republicans vowed to slash the $2.2 trillion concept to focus on roads, bridges and broadband projects, and not allow it to cover the climate, energy and “social infrastructure” ideas that Biden espoused. A second phase of the Biden infrastructure agenda, labeled the American Family Plan, was due to be released in April, also calling for $1 trillion to $2 trillion in government funding during the coming decade. 

Since the entire infrastructure plan includes corporate tax increases, it faces severe challenges as it heads to Congress.

The broadband proposal’s congressional journey actually began in the last two months with the introduction of legislation that will become part of Biden’s plan: House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) introduced the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act (AAIA), which seeks to invest $94 billion to build high-speed broadband infrastructure in underserved communities, and all 32 Democratic members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee are co-sponsoring the Leading Infrastructure For Tomorrow’s America (LIFT America) Act, which includes broadband modernization and expansion in its proposed $312 billion spending for energy, water and health-care infrastructure programs. 

The “digital” section of the Biden plan focuses on eliminating the digital divide. It also encompasses tech-related research projects to assure American innovation, some of which could become intertwined with expanded broadband or wireless services. 

‘Revitalize Digital Infrastructure’

Biden cited data indicating that “more than 30 million Americans live in areas where there is no broadband infrastructure that provides minimally acceptable speeds,” emphasizing the limitations in rural areas and on tribal lands. 

“In urban areas as well, there is a stark digital divide: a much higher percentage of White families use home broadband internet than Black or Latino families,” Biden said. The proposed $100 million investment will “build high-speed broadband infrastructure to reach 100 percent coverage,” Biden added, noting that the plan will ‘future-proof’ broadband infrastructure.

One way to accomplish that is to “prioritize support for broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, nonprofits, and cooperatives — providers with less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities,” the plan said. 

Piling on ideas that have traditionally annoyed incumbent telecom companies, Biden focused on price regulation, noting that Americans “pay too much for internet service.” He cited the need to “reduce the cost of broadband internet service and promote more widespread adoption.” The White House policy paper said: “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.”

That goal will be achieved 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,” according to the plan.

Biden sought to temper this approach by assuring that individual subsidies to cover internet costs will not be a permanent policy. “Continually providing subsidies to cover the cost of overpriced internet service is not the right long-term solution for consumers or taxpayers,” according to the White House.

Opposition Takes Shape

Even before the Biden plan was released, Congressional Republicans announced that they’d only work on legislation that focused on transportation and broadband, not other Biden aspirations such as climate and family care factors.

“I don’t think the bill can grow into a multitrillion dollar catch-all,” said Rep. Sam Graves (R-Missouri), the top Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “It needs to be about roads and bridges.” 

The need for speed fits into many of the initial analyses of the plan, along with an evaluation of whether the overall broadband agenda is good for incumbent carriers or entrepreneurial interlopers. Critics are already speculating incumbent carriers will seek to tailor the eventual legislation to assure their stake in the funding — possibly to the exclusion of entrepreneurial ventures. 

Craig Moffett, principal and senior analyst at research firm MoffettNathanson and a long-time media/telecom analyst, said in an interview that the Biden plan “still feels very much like a provisional first draft at this point.”

“There are some problematic elements, like the symmetrical bandwidth standard,” he said. “On balance, funding to bring broadband to more of America is good news for existing operators.” 

Others questioned whether ideas such as the bidirectional requirement for speeds of 100 megabits per second or 1 gigabit per second should be enshrined in the plan, as proposed by former Federal Communications Commission chairman and Brookings Institute visiting fellow Tom Wheeler. In Congressional testimony in March, Wheeler suggested that symmetrical 1 Gbps service is a necessity, even if it requires a long-term funding subsidy. 

Wheeler, who had a hand in crafting the Biden plan, said it is a “work in progress.” He believes it should be rolled out as a “Fiber First” project, based on FCC studies, an interesting perspective from the lobbyist who once headed CTIA-The Wireless Association. He said the rural prioritization should be about adoption, not just deployment. In that context, he said, price matters to assure that low-income users can afford high-speed access.  

NCTA president and CEO Michael Powell

NCTA president and CEO Michael Powell (Image credit: NCTA)

NCTA-The Internet & Television Association president and CEO Michael Powell quickly voiced opposition to government-built broadband subsidies or price regulations. He said the White House’s plan risks making a big “wrong turn” by “discarding decades of successful policy” that is subsidizing hard-to-reach and low-income residents. Powell insisted Biden’s plan is shortsighted in believing “the government is better suited than private-sector technologists to build and operate the internet.”

ACA Connects president and CEO Matthew M. Polka also warned that “more deployment alone will not bridge the digital divide” and insisted that recent federal pro-investment policies have encouraged private-sector expansion of broadband services. 

“As we go forward, we should ‘do no harm’ and not undermine these investment incentives,” Polka, said. He acknowledged “adoption,” not deployment, is a major challenge. 

Michael O’Rielly, principal at MPORielly Consulting and a former FCC commissioner, said the Biden proposal “is based on faulty premises and seems to advocate for indefensible and harmful policy directions.”

“It dismisses calls by many, including myself, to focus on those Americans without broadband service — those truly in need — and charges ahead with a costly, unnecessary, and detrimental proposal that would assault current private broadband providers’ investment and putting at risk all existing federal broadband programs,” O’Rielly said. 

View from Pew Center

The Pew Research Center, which has followed internet and technology developments, focused on the high data speed goals of the infrastructure plan. 

“No matter how this legislation shakes out, lawmakers should set higher speed requirements, prioritize fiber deployment, establish accountability and oversight measures for funds, and address affordability,” said Kathryn de Wit, project director of the broadband access initiative at The Pew Charitable Trusts, adding that it’s critical for federal law to address the role of state and local governments.

Randolph May, president of the Free State Foundation, a telecom-focused think tank, endorsed the infrastructure proposal, but voiced concerns that “the plan will not direct funds primarily to unserved areas. The bulk of any funding should go to areas that do not yet have broadband service.” He also is wary about how “broadband will be defined.” 

Consumer Technology Association president and CEO Gary Shapiro focused on the importance of building broadband infrastructure, including “dig once” policies to free up spectrum for innovators. 

John Lawson, president of Convergence Services and executive director of the AWARN Alliance, believes that the Biden infrastructure programs could seed the market for NextGen TV, citing the FCC’s “broadcast internet” rulemakings as supporting this prospect. He noted that “innovative broadcasters” are working on connected car projects using ATSC 3.0 technology.