Warren Pledges $85 Billion for Public Broadband

Saying that "big broadband companies exclude entire communities — especially tribal communities and rural communities of color — from access to high-speed Internet," presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has unveiled her plan for closing the rural broadband gap--billions for rate-regulated, publicly funded networks and preempting state laws that don't square with her plan, among many other things. 

According to a recent poll, Warren is running second behind former Vice President Joe Biden among the Democratic presidential hopefuls. 

In a post on Medium, and as a part of her larger "Plan for Rural America, Warren lit into ISPs. "Not only that, they 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," she said. Her solutions include a new $85 billion fund to power buildouts, but only going to utility cooperatives, non-profits, tribes, local governments. 

Related: Warren Outlines Plan to Cut Big Tech Down to Size

Warren was hardly less critical of government broadband efforts to date. "[T]he federal government has shoveled billions of taxpayer dollars to private ISPs in an effort to expand broadband to remote areas [that would include the FCC's Universal Service Fund and the Obama Administration's stimulus bill Commerce and USDA-overseen subsidies], but those providers have done the bare minimum with these resources — offering internet speeds well below the FCC minimum." 

She said that will end when she is 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," she wrote.  

Related: Democrat Bill Would Prevent State Efforts to Limit Muni Broadband

ISPs have long argued that such buildouts targeting the "underserved" often result in overbuilding commercial providers with government subsidies and leave taxpayers holding the bag if those buildouts can't make it as going concerns.

She will also have some litmus tests for FCC commissioner appointees: Restoring net neutrality rules; requiring ISP reporting of broadband deployment to the household level and with aggregate pricing data. 

The plan is nothing if not ambitious, as outlined below: 

1. "Make it clear in federal statute that municipalities have the right to build their own broadband networks. Many small towns and rural areas have turned to municipal networks to provide broadband access in places that the private market has failed to serve — but today, as many as 26 states have passed laws hindering or banning municipalities from building their own broadband infrastructure to protect the interests of giant telecom companies. We will preempt these laws and return this power to local governments. 

2. "Create an Office of Broadband Access in my Department of Economic Development that will manage a new $85 billion federal grant program to massively expand broadband access across the country. Under my plan, 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 will 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 will 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. 

3. "Appoint FCC commissioners who will restore net neutrality. I will appoint FCC Commissioners who will restore net neutrality, regulating internet service providers as 'common carriers' and maintaining open access to the Internet. And I will 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 we can work toward every tribal library having broadband access. 

4. "Bolster the FCC’s Office of Native Affairs and Policy. This office holds trainings, technical assistance, and consultations for Indian Country. Providing it with dedicated, increased funding to expand its capacity will help close the digital divide. 

5. "Improve the accuracy of broadband maps. Weak FCC oversight has allowed ISPs to greatly exaggerate how many households they serve and has given ISPs added fuel to downplay their failures and protect themselves from regulation. To provide universal broadband access and crack down on anti-competitive behaviors, the government has to know how extensive the problems are. I will appoint FCC commissioners who will require ISPs to report service and speeds down to the household level, as well as aggregate pricing data, and work with community stakeholders — including tribal nations — to make sure we get this process right. Then, we will make these data available to the public and conduct regular audits to ensure accurate reporting. 

6. "Prohibit the range of sneaky maneuvers giant private providers use to unfairly squeeze out competition, hold governments hostage, and drive up prices. It’s time to crack down on all the anti-competitive behaviors that giant ISPs have used to steamroll the competition. We will return control of utility poles and conduits to cities, prohibit landlords from making side deals with private ISPs to limit choices in their properties, and ban companies from limiting access to wires inside buildings. We will make sure that all new buildings are fiber-ready so that any network can deliver service there, and we will also enact 'Dig Once' policies to require that conduit is laid anytime the ground is opened for a public infrastructure project." 

7. "Ensure every person has the skills to fully participate in our online economy. Even when there’s access to broadband internet — and even when it’s available at an affordable price — people may still not take advantage of it because they don’t know how to use it. That’s why I will work to pass the Digital Equity Act, which invests $2.5 billion over ten years to help states develop digital equity plans and launch digital inclusion projects."

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.