For several decades, the need for broadband expansion throughout the nation has been clear–so clear that policymakers have considered such infrastructure improvements for nearly 20 years. But the recent pandemic served as a catalyst for change in this regard. With businesses closed and communities in lockdown, online activities increased substantially. In many instances, access to high-speed Internet was a necessity, especially in areas like education and healthcare. And it’s for these reasons that the current $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill includes a substantial amount for broadband expansion.
At the present time, however, the broadband infrastructure bill allocations have yet to be approved. Despite the obvious need to bridge the nation’s digital divide, some policymakers are leveraging one agenda for another. Many remain hopeful the broadband infrastructure bill will eventually pass, even if it requires a separate piece of legislation. But many businesses involved in telecommunication are forging ahead with broadband expansion regardless. Certainly, government supports would greatly accelerate this process. But either way, it appears states and companies are investing increasing efforts to bring high-speed Internet to all.
“COVID taught lots of government officials why you need every school kid to have broadband in their homes and why rural areas need it for health care.” – Blair Levin, Wall Street analyst and Lead Author of the National Broadband Plan under President Obama
Understanding the Broadband Infrastructure Bill
The current legislative proposal for broadband expansion under focuses on a few key areas when it comes to the digital divide. Out of the entire $1.2 trillion of the infrastructure bill, roughly $65 billion is being allotted to broadband development. The largest portion of these funds, totaling $42 billion, is to support development of high-speed Internet where it doesn’t exist. This money will be provided to states in an effort to expand Internet services in rural areas. States decide which Internet service providers (ISPs) receive funding based on their proposals. This lion’s share portion of the broadband infrastructure bill targets the most pressing digital need currently.
The remainder of the allotments related to the broadband infrastructure bill supports other areas of need. Approximately $14.2 billion will go toward creating a permanent subsidy for low-income households. Each household will enjoy a $30 per month allotment for broadband Internet services. These subsidies hope to deter ISPs from redlining low-income communities where they believe they will earn fewer profits. The bill also includes nearly $3 billion to go toward state programs associated with the Digital Equity Act. These programs allow states to provide digital literacy education and support net neutrality access. Without question, this degree of funding will certainly boost the nation’s broadband expansion almost overnight.
“Out of [the pandemic] crisis is opportunity. With this crisis, we’ve ended the days where we talk about broadband as a ‘nice-to-have.’ Policymakers everywhere now understand it’s a ‘need-to-have’ for everyone across this country.” – Jessica Rosenworcel, Acting Chair of Federal Communications Commission
Accelerating Broadband Expansion Progress
Currently, many states are already taking initiatives throughout their own broadband infrastructure bill programs. State funding in areas like New York, West Virginia, Florida, and elsewhere recognize the needs that the pandemic highlighted. At the same time, major ISPs are also committing to broadband expansion. Some of these companies represent smaller entities while others are major telecommunications giants. In fact, the FCC has already noted around 180 companies are jockeying for broadband infrastructure bill funding. Many assume some form of legislation will eventually succeed, and thus, they are preparing in advance.
Several major companies have already announced significant plans for broadband expansion. Charter Communications operates in multiple states presently as an ISP. It is currently enhancing its network efficiencies and acknowledges that government subsidies would help greatly. AT&T is planning to self-fund its own fiberoptic network for broadband expansion to millions. It hopes to reach an additional 30 million households by 2025. Also, Frontier Communications has adopted a Build Gigabit Program, targeting 10 million new locations by 2025. It has also partnered with AT&T to expand broadband access to 25 states in total. While these plans are already in place, the broadband infrastructure bill would help fast-track these objectives.
“With Frontier building out its own fiber network where we are not building, we’ll be able to work together to provide large business customers with the high-speed, low-latency data connectivity they need to grow and thrive.” – Scott Mair, President, Network Engineering and Operations, AT&T
Additional Requirements of the Broadband Infrastructure Bill
Initially, there was significant debate over what speeds defined broadband Internet among policymakers. However, the current version of the bill requires upload speeds of 20 mbps and download speeds of 100 mbps. Understanding this, this allows for not only fiberoptic networks but other types of Internet service infrastructures as well. Specifically, these requirements allow coaxial cable networks as well as satellite service networks to participate. This is noteworthy because it expands potential ISPs available, including SpaceX’s Starlink network. Under the current broadband infrastructure bill, all would be eligible for funding supports.
The latest infrastructure bill also requires ISPs to be more transparent in relation to their services. Specifically, each company must disclose each of the Internet service levels and their associated prices. Also, for ISPs receiving federal government support, funds may be withheld if customers experience long service outages. Federal grants also insist that ISP recipients provide Internet services to low-income areas regardless of profitability. Policymakers in favor of these stipulations believe this will deter many of the practices that currently affect equitable access.
Current State of Affairs
As of November, the currently proposed infrastructure bill has passed the Senate and is awaiting a House vote. However, despite bipartisan support of broadband expansion, links to other infrastructure programs threaten its passage. For long-time advocates of such measures, they believe now be the best time for a broadband infrastructure bill to pass. But the farther away it gets from the peak of the pandemic, the less likely this becomes. In order to bridge the nation’s digital divide, it’s clear the current bill would be advantageous. But ultimately, it may still fall upon businesses’ shoulders to make broadband expansion a reality.