IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Is Broadband for All Really Possible?

The government is putting real money toward a historic expansion of America’s broadband services, but pulling it off may require accountability measures, affordable services and higher standards for minimum speeds.

A fiber-optic cable attached to a utility pole.
After almost two years of dealing with remote learning and work-from-home, one thing most Americans can agree on is that the country’s broadband infrastructure needs a major upgrade and an inclusive buildout.

In the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of students didn’t have the Internet connectivity necessary to fully participate in online learning. And many household broadband connections couldn’t support both students’ remote schooling and parents working from home.

These frustrations were heard by elected officials, and billions of federal dollars have since been earmarked to address the problem — with more potentially on the way through President Biden’s infrastructure package, which at this writing is still being debated in Congress.

But the question remains if the large sums of money steered towards broadband initiatives are actually enough, or if these funds will be supported with the speed and accountability requirements necessary for the programs to succeed in the long term.

Many of us concerned about education and the wider societal good align with The Pew Charitable Trusts in believing the new broadband initiatives should focus on three main priorities.


One of the rude awakenings of the pandemic, especially for families that thought they had decent Internet connectivity, was how poorly it served them when multiple family members were video conferencing at the same time. And these families were the “haves,” while many “have not” families that tried to do the same with one school-provided Wi-Fi hot spot were even more frustrated at the results.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the organization charged with setting the country’s broadband standards, and it currently uses 25 megabits per second (mbps) download speed and 3mbps upload as its official “broadband” definition. But these 25/3 speeds proved woefully inadequate in the family situations described, because effective teleconferencing, unlike streaming a movie, requires both fast downloads and uploads.

Recognizing this shortcoming, President Biden’s new infrastructure bill is positioned to increase the minimum speeds to 100mbps down and 20 up, which, though a definite improvement, will also soon be outdated.

The faster speeds needed for video conferencing, telemedicine and robust online learning, as well as home entertainment, require fiber-optic cabling for their transmission. But since much of the older cabling installed by the telecoms is copper and will need to be upgraded, the telecom industry has heretofore successfully lobbied the FCC for lower broadband speed standards.

But in order to receive new government funding through Biden’s infrastructure bill, the industry should be required to rebuild their systems to meet consumers’ growing broadband needs. This future-proofing of our broadband infrastructure is essential for the bill to reach its “once-in-a-generation” aspirations.


In a push to get more low-income households connected to broadband during the pandemic, up to $50 a month in emergency government stipends were made available to qualifying users. But that’s expected to drop to $30 a month in the new bill, further jeopardizing the ability of some households to stay connected.

A recent Consumer Reports survey found the median monthly cost of broadband is about $68 per month in areas that have three Internet service provider (ISP) options. But the cost for those with only one provider is $75 monthly, pointing to the importance of marketplace competition for keeping prices down.

Prior to introducing his infrastructure bill, President Biden touted support for municipal broadband — systems where municipalities, sometimes in conjunction with a local ISP, offer their own Internet plan to residents.

Municipal broadband has long been the nemesis of big telecom companies, and they’ve gone to great lengths to lobby for state legislation handcuffing such competition. Though some states have since overturned their restrictions, at least 18 states still have them on the books, disallowing local governments the opportunity to build out more affordable options for their communities.

And it appears that the telecom lobby has again flexed its muscle, because municipal broadband is no longer explicitly supported in the president’s infrastructure package.

Though there may be ways for towns to use federal or state infrastructure funding to build municipal broadband networks — which according to the Consumer Reports survey are supported by 3 in 4 Americans — it’s nonetheless a lost opportunity for the feds not to support these local networks in a big way. It’s a loss for competition that can lead to greater broadband affordability, and also a lost opportunity for extending high-speed networks into more underserved areas, as some electric cooperatives have done in building high-speed networks in rural communities.

In comparison to our global counterparts, U.S. Internet services are expensive, and on average our speeds aren’t great. Yet three cities with municipal broadband networks — Chattanooga, Tenn.; Lafayette, La.; and Fort Collins, Colo. — provide download speeds comparable to some of the world’s fastest, and at local market rates.


With the billions of dollars allocated to close our digital divide, accountability measures are required to ensure the funds — both by public and private entities — are well spent.

Collecting data that accurately measures our broadband penetration nationwide should be a no-brainer, though to date we’ve been unable to do that. And we should also use this opportunity to set ambitious ISP service standards for their broadband speeds and their customer satisfaction, and hold them accountable for meeting these measures.

Though it contains some unfortunate compromises apparently necessary for bipartisan Congressional support, there’s much to like in the broadband portion of the president’s “Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.” And if done right, it could actually be the “once-in-a-generation” solution for finally providing good and affordable broadband solutions for millions more Americans.
Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a teacher, a librarian, and a district-level educational technology director. He currently writes and consults from Santa Fe, New Mexico.