President-elect Joe Biden is expected to make a difference when it comes to federal broadband initiatives, experts say. The two remaining Senate races in Georgia also hold importance for federal Internet programs.
The administration of President-elect Joe Biden will likely have a significant influence on federal broadband funding and conversations surrounding Federal Communications Commission (FCC) programs, according to multiple policy experts in the space.
Will Rinehart, senior research fellow at Utah State University’s Center for Growth and Opportunity, said Biden and Pete Buttigieg, Biden’s secretary of transportation nominee, want to make a “big splash” with infrastructure. Both politicians have zeroed in on broadband as an area of focus.
Doug Brake, broadband and spectrum policy director for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said Biden is a dealmaker who is willing to reach across the political aisle. Brake also pointed out that some prominent Republicans like former Ohio Gov. John Kasich have talked about the importance of infrastructure spending for high-speed Internet.
“I think we’ll have a big infrastructure package that authorizes a significant amount of spending for rural broadband,” Brake said. “I think we’ll also have a COVID stimulus package that authorizes spending for short-term relief for low-income individuals.”
Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, mentioned the recent bipartisan stimulus bill, which includes $7 billion for broadband. Siefer, one of GovTech’s Top 25 Doers, Dreamers, and Drivers of 2019, said the bill could set the table for more comprehensive broadband initiatives under the Biden administration.
“It gives me hope that the awareness is there and that if we keep working at it, and increasing the awareness and education and understanding, then we can get some solutions on adoption, not just availability,” Siefer said.
The two U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia, which will take place in January, could also make a noticeable impact on federal broadband efforts. Brake said the results of those races will affect the “tenor” of federal legislation related to high-speed Internet.
“If you have effectively a Democratic Senate, I think it’s much more likely that the infrastructure package becomes bigger,” Rinehart said. “You will probably have more money spent on it. It might get wrapped up in a larger New Deal question.”
Siefer said outcomes of the Senate runoffs matter because broadband adoption isn’t a surefire bipartisan issue yet.
“It should not be a partisan issue, but Democrats have taken to it more quickly than Republicans,” Siefer said. “When the Republicans are in charge, there is more education to be done. That’s not to say we can’t do that. It’s just going to take us more time to get there.”
Discussions on FCC broadband programs may also shift under the new administration, assuming Congress approves of Biden’s nominee for the commission. Brake believes the E-Rate program, which helps schools and libraries attain “affordable broadband,” could see a quick change in terms of what it defines as allowable expenses for Internet devices, especially given the rise of at-home learning during the pandemic. Currently, E-Rate can only pay for devices within educational buildings.
“My kid is not learning in a building … that’s a disconnect,” Siefer said.
Similarly, given the increased importance of having an Internet connection during the COVID-19 crisis, the Lifeline program, which assists low-income individuals, may be reworked.
“We’re likely to see, under a Biden administration, opportunities to expand the Lifeline subsidy, especially during the pandemic, so that it includes more people,” Brake said. “The eligibility criteria could be widened.”
Siefer, Brake and Rinehart all believe the Universal Service Fund, which supports all FCC programs, needs to be reformed. The fund grows based on fees attached to the voice portion of Americans’ phone bills. The problem is that not enough money comes from such fees anymore.
“More and more people are communicating through other means rather than voice,” Brake said. “That space is shrinking.”
In general, Siefer argues that a conversation about broadband affordability should rise to the surface during the Biden administration. To make her point, Siefer made reference to the costs that people must cover for Internet from Starlink, the satellite broadband service from SpaceX, which recently won $886 million from the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.
“At this point, Starlink is saying it’s $99 per month for their service, plus you have to buy their equipment, which is $499,” Siefer said. “That’s insane. Why would the government invest in something that would be that expensive?”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the broadband funding that was included in the recently passed stimulus bill.
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