Biden American Jobs Plan Predicts Universal, Affordable Broadband By Decade's End

White House
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Echoing President John F. Kennedy's promise of a moon landing as the 1960's began, President Joe Biden plans to shoot for the moon in terms of universal broadband access, and as well as his version of Kennedy's "the other things," which include transportation, water, clean energy and access to care.

That is according to White Officials on a background call late Tuesday.

The plan is to spend roughly $2 trillion over eight years.

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President Joe Biden is signaling that his infrastructure investment plan, which the White House is billing as a jobs plan, will achieve the goal of both universal and affordable" high-speed broadband in this decade, with the $100 billion price tag Hill Dems have been pushing.

The White House will promote municipal broadband by prioritizing the funding for such service and going after state laws limiting muni broadband.

The President also says broadband costs too much, period, so his goal of not just available but affordable broadband means working with Congress to lower prices.

ISPs likely aren't applauding the potential rollback of municipal broadband-limiting bills, which they backed as limiting expensive overbuilds that could leave taxpayers holding the bag, or what is essentially a presidential proclamation that their service is too expensive. ISPs do have to recoup the hundreds of billions of sunk costs in network buildouts and revamps, after all. 

The plan did not explain how the President planned to decrease "overpriced internet service" (see below). But with the Administration also backing a return of net neutrality rules under Title II, the specter of rate regulation is certainly hovering, although former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, whose spirit if not hand is evident in the Biden plan, tried to take rate reg off the table with his net neutrality rule effort.

Calling it the electricity of the 21st Century, which echoes Wheeler, a senior administration official said it has become clear what the impact of ailing and aging electric power systems has on the economy and families, costing them billions of dollars a year. The White House doesn't want a repeat with broadband.

Also Read: Tom Wheeler Says 1 Gig Needed to Bridge Digital Chasm

Biden will make his case for the need for the multi-trillion dollar plan, and the increased taxes to pay for it, in outlining his American Jobs Plan Wednesday. He will make the case for why investing in transportation and energy and broadband and healthcare, including in rural areas, is not only commonsense, and hash bipartisan backing--likely except for the price tag--but is important to do now. He will likely point to the fact that the COVID-19 crisis has put a spotlight on the lack of internet access, which means lack of access to the modern economy.

Congress Democrats are certainly on the same page when it comes to the need for universal broadband and the reasons why. 

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), joined by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), earlier this month re-introduced a bill to close the digital divide by connecting everyone to the internet at high speeds, with 1 Gig as the goal.

"Internet access will have the same dramatic impact on rural communities as the rural electrification efforts in the last century," Clyburn tweeted of the bill, which he previewed at the INCOMPAS virtual conference last month. "This pandemic has further widened the digital divide and exposed the urgent need to enact the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act," said Clyburn.

Here is how The Plan plans to get broadband out there:

"Generations ago, the federal government recognized that without affordable access to electricity, Americans couldn’t fully participate in modern society and the modern economy. With the 1936 Rural Electrification Act, the federal government made a historic investment in bringing electricity to nearly every home and farm in America, and millions of families and our economy reaped the benefits. Broadband internet is the new electricity. It is necessary for Americans to do their jobs, to participate equally in school learning, health care, and to stay connected. Yet, by one definition, more than 30 million Americans 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. 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. The last year made painfully clear the cost of these disparities, particularly for students who struggled to connect while learning remotely, compounding learning loss and social isolation for those students.

"The President believes we can bring affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to every American through a historic investment of $100 billion. That investment will:

1. "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.

2. "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.

3. "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 National Association of Counties (NACO) welcomed the focus on local governments in the broadband plan.

"“We must bridge the digital divide to increase our economic competitiveness and connect our residents. Broadband connectivity is more important than ever," NACO Executive Director Matthew Chase. "Residents in every corner of the country rely on high-speed internet to conduct our daily lives, including work, school, medical appointments and more. As counties focus on building infrastructure to prepare our communities for the future, we look forward to working with the administration and bipartisan members of Congress. Together, we can achieve our shared goals, strengthening our nation’s infrastructure, economy and resiliency.”

WISPA, the wireless internet service providers association, had some advice for just where to put the broadband money and emphasis.

"All Americans should have access to high speed internet no matter where they live or what they can afford," said WISP VP of government affairs Christina Mason. "Though the digital divide is shrinking, more can and must be done to bring all Americans online. The President’s focus is right on target."

Mason said that target should include: "more spectrum for small innovators; subsidy programs that are truly tech-neutral and leverage providers already in the marketplace; nondiscriminatory access to physical infrastructure for small broadband providers; and more support to boost digital adoption and inclusion." 

“No infrastructure package would be complete without digital infrastructure, and on behalf of NTCA’s members, I want to thank President Biden for recognizing the importance of broadband access in his new American Jobs Plan," said Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association. "If we have learned anything from the last year, it is that connections matter, broadband matters – and speed and capacity matter. We need to aim high and invest in efficient and scalable technologies like fiber to meet the needs not only of today’s consumers but also tomorrow’s. NTCA looks forward to continuing to work with the White House and policymakers to ensure that providers of all kinds who are committed to their communities can realize and then sustain a shared vision of broadband access for all.”

The Internet Innovation Alliance, whose members include AT&T, Alcatel-Lucent and Corning, definitely has questions about, and issues with, the assertion that subsidies alone are not enough to lower "overpriced" broadband.

"It’s unrealistic to think that broadband prices could be artificially lowered, as the plan recommends, to a point that they are affordable for Americans most in need of assistance, while simultaneously leaving service providers with sufficient revenue to build, upgrade and maintain the networks that keep the United States globally competitive," IIA said. "A modernized Lifeline program providing adequate subsidies to ensure that those most in need are connected is a far better approach."

"The American Jobs Plan 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," said the office of Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). 

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Blumenthal co-sponsored the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, which would invest $94 billion to ensure that "all Americans have fast, reliable, and affordable internet connectivity."

Brent Skorup, senior fellow at the Mercatus Center was uninpressed with the Biden broadband plan and its focus on funding municipal and non-profit service.

"It’s welcome news that the Biden administration has turned its attention to broadband infrastructure," he said. "Unfortunately, the administration’s infrastructure fact sheet rehearses stale broadband ideas. Rather than scrutinize or improve existing government programs—the FCC alone disburses over $8 billion in subsidies to industry annually—it doubles down on $100 billion in new spending and risky government-operated networks."

Among Skorup's suggestions for closing the digital divide include creating broadband vouchers for rural households, using transportation funds to build broadband infrastructure along roadways (the "dig once" strategy), and auctioning underused federal spectrum to commercial buyers.

“The President’s plan aligns with the LIFT America Act, which I introduced earlier this month with all Energy and Commerce Committee Democrats," said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee. "Our legislation invests in clean and efficient energy, safe drinking water, expanded access to broadband, Brownfield cleanups, and improving our nation’s health care infrastructure."

The broadband portion of Pallone's bill also proposes investing $100 billion to get universal broadband. 

“On broadband, President Biden is poised to waste billions of dollars and hurt private investment in our networks without actually closing the digital divide," said House Energy & Commerce Committee Republican Leader Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.). "Rather than promoting competition, President Biden’s plan will set rural America back even further and force higher costs on families. Instead, we should be turbocharging our public and private investments and encouraging competition by streamlining permitting processes. House Republicans are leading on those solutions in our Boosting Broadband Connectivity Agenda.”

“ACA Connects supports the Biden Administration’s aim to provide high-speed broadband to all Americans. There are too many households, mostly in more rural parts or other economically challenged areas of the country, without access to any broadband services or that only have access to unreliable, low-speed service," said association president Matt Polka.

"“But more deployment alone will not bridge the digital divide. As ACA Connects members know, not every household that has access to broadband subscribes and for any number of reasons," he said, adding that "we should not lose sight of the fact that America’s broadband infrastructure has excelled during the COVID emergency because of the pro-investment policies that have been adopted by Democratic and Republican administrations alike. Above all, as we go forward, we should ‘do no harm’ and not undermine these investment incentives."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.