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Will the Infrastructure Bill Fix America's Broadband Issues?

If the federal infrastructure bill makes it through the House of Representatives and receives President Joe Biden's signature, $65 billion will go to broadband. What does that really mean, though, for America's future?

U.S. Capitol Building
In modern U.S. politics, there are no guarantees. Despite bipartisan support for the $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill, the bill faces political hurdles among the Democratic members of the House of Representatives.

But assuming the bill passes, many people with Internet problems must wonder: How much of a dent would the bill’s $65 billion for broadband put into the digital divide?

The $65 billion features two primary buckets: about $42 billion in grants to states for broadband infrastructure and about $14 billion to extend the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) for low-income citizens.

Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, has a positive take on the $42 billion for infrastructure, though with a significant caveat about people’s ability to adopt broadband.

“If the states spend it responsibly, it should largely resolve the challenge of people not having a network at their home,” Mitchell said. “As far as the term ‘digital divide’ is concerned, we will still have tens of millions of Americans who cannot afford it.”

Of course, $14 billion of the bill aims to address broadband affordability. While some of that money will go to “good local companies” and municipalities, Mitchell said a lot of it will end up with organizations that have monopolies on portions of the Internet market.

“I’m conflicted on it because we need to do something to help the families who cannot afford the prices charged by the broken broadband market … it’s just painful to put so much money in the pockets of the biggest companies who are overcharging families,” Mitchell said.

Russ Elliott, director of the Washington State Broadband Office, said the $42 billion should translate to “future-proof” Internet quality for a number of people. Elliott has thought about what share of the grant money his state might receive. He estimates that Washington, based on its population, may get somewhere between $700 million and $1 billion.

If Washington did get $1 billion and matched it, Elliott believes the state could make a “substantial impact” on broadband access, as the state calculates that $3 billion to $4 billion could connect its most rural areas.

Antonio Martinez, executive director of the Colorado Broadband Office, predicts that Colorado’s broadband adoption rate would go up “several percentage points in the first few years” with the infrastructure bill money.

“I don’t see any way that all states aren’t going to benefit when it comes to closing the broadband digital divide,” Martinez stated.

Martinez added that he’s a huge advocate for the $14 billion portion that will extend EBB for low-income families. Although the extension will decrease the program’s monthly Internet bill discount from $50 to $30, Martinez explained that legislators have made the discount “lower so that more people can take advantage.”

Mitchell, on the other hand, would have liked the bill to address affordability in rural areas by including a funding preference for cooperatives.

“We electrified the country in a very fiscally responsible manner because we focused on cooperatives and not private companies,” Mitchell explained. “I’m supportive of private companies in many situations, but the cooperatives solved the long-term challenge of making sure the infrastructure remains good, whereas with the private companies, I worry, ‘Who’s going to purchase that private company? Is it going to be somebody who ignores rural needs?’”

One interesting wrinkle of the bill is it designates the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) as the entity that would distribute the $42 billion in grants. This decision represents a break from the past. For a long time, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been responsible for the bulk of federal broadband grants.

Elliott welcomes this change, pointing out that Washington was one of the first states to submit a project through a new NTIA fund. For this reason, Washington feels it’s set up for success. Additionally, Elliott hasn’t been impressed by some of the FCC’s previous grant work.

“Many of the [FCC’s] reverse auctions have resulted in not-wins,” Elliott said.

Martinez suggested the FCC could have been a good choice. He did cite familiarity with NTIA as a strength, however, and stated that factors like cost of deployment and geographic conditions should play a role in funding decisions.

“We have very difficult conditions to build across the mountains. You’ve got to go through granite,” Martinez said, adding that different engineering approaches have to be used in such settings.

Mitchell was the most critical of the FCC. He believes the money will be spent better if it goes through NTIA. Both Elliott and Mitchell also pointed out that the FCC’s Form 477 data has made it very difficult for local areas without broadband to get funding, forcing states to collect their own data and create more accurate maps.

“We have very little to show for with the money that the FCC has distributed,” Mitchell said. “The FCC has overwhelmingly spent it on obsolete networks that may have never been built.”

Concerning what they would have liked to see in the bill, Martinez mentioned that broadband isn’t a regulated utility. If the goal is to make the Internet more accessible, he said there should be a regulatory structure that is enforceable across all 50 states.

Elliott said he would encourage the federal government to make EBB a perpetual program, as opposed to allowing affordability to be a conversation among states. He also emphasized the importance of building infrastructure that’s not going to need to be rebuilt again soon. Specifically, he doesn’t think an asymmetrical definition of broadband speeds — such as 25/3 or 100/20 — makes sense for the future.

“Asymmetrical is deferring the problem to later,” Elliott said. “We need to start thinking symmetrical. Precision agriculture and telehealth will need higher upload speeds … we’re borrowing against our six-year-olds’ future, and if that infrastructure isn’t usable, we’ve done a tremendous disservice. Let’s make sure we invest in that scalable infrastructure with the money we’re borrowing.”
Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.