Is broadband infrastructure? Republicans used to think so

Republicans less sure that providing the service to all Americans is infrastructure, or at least at Biden's price tag

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Posted April 13, 2021 at 6:00am

The debate in Congress over President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion-plus infrastructure plan has featured a clean, simple attack line from Republicans: Most of the money wouldn’t really go to infrastructure.

Of course, that depends entirely on how you define infrastructure. For their purposes, Republicans are opting for a classic definition, seeking to limit the scope to things like roads and bridges. Russell Vought, who led the Office of Management and Budget under President Donald Trump, asserted in a recent Fox News appearance that “only 5 to 7 percent” of the plan is actual infrastructure.

And although that assertion was awarded “Three Pinocchios” by a Washington Post fact-checker, one can make an argument that funding in the plan for things like home-care services and electric vehicle purchases isn’t exactly infrastructure. But Republicans’ objection to one piece of the plan, broadband expansion so that households in all parts of the country have access to fast internet service, seems the result of a particularly curious case of political amnesia.

“There are a number of bipartisan ideas to bridge the digital divide that would work better than adding to the national debt,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., told The Wall Street Journal recently. It would be a waste of taxpayer funds to start “flooding the country with federal dollars in the name of universal broadband,” Blackburn said.

[Biden backs $100 billion to close digital divide]

Biden’s infrastructure plan seeks to invest $100 billion in broadband expansion projects with the goal of fully closing the so-called digital divide by the end of the decade, meaning 100 percent of the country would be covered by a broadband signal and 100 percent of Americans would be able to afford service.

It’s fair for Republicans to object to the cost of Biden’s plan; they tend to say that a figure closer to $20 billion would be sufficient for providing broadband service to unserved and underserved areas. But it’s a stretch to exclude broadband from their definition of infrastructure in light of their long support of such investments, especially those aimed at improving service in rural areas.

It’s a point that the White House has been quick to make since Biden’s plan was announced.

“[Republicans] have previously called for investing in broadband and the expansion of broadband as a means of expanding infrastructure,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last week. “So I would suggest that many of their constituents would be surprised to hear that those are not infrastructure projects.”

Perhaps anticipating the GOP reaction, the White House is comparing broadband expansion to the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. With the goal of powering farms, the law provided low-cost loans to small companies, state governments and nonprofit cooperatives to set up electric grids where major corporations were unwilling to build their own.

The law’s proponents spoke of electricity in the same terms used for broadband today. Sen. George Norris of Nebraska, one of its lead sponsors, wrote later that its goal was to give a “fair chance” to rural Americans “conscious of the great gap between their lives and the lives of those whom the accident of birth or choice placed in towns and cities.” Electricity was a matter of economic necessity.

Biden is seeking to make the same argument for broadband. And based on recent history, Republicans ought to agree — the instances over the past few years when they’ve listed broadband alongside infrastructure are too many to count. As recently as February, Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee unveiled a connectivity agenda of 28 pieces of broadband legislation, including 13 under the umbrella of infrastructure deployment and maintenance.

Closing the digital divide, especially in rural areas, is a rare joint priority for both Democrats and Republicans. And they have worked together before, most recently in December, by including $300 million for rural broadband deployment in pandemic relief legislation. But they disagree over the best way to achieve long-term connectivity for every American, no matter where they live.

Biden wants to follow the model of the Rural Electrification Act, prioritizing subsidies for networks affiliated with nonprofits, local governments and electric cooperatives, “providers with less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities,” according to the White House.

But Republicans oppose that approach. Legislation introduced in February by Rep. Billy Long, R-Mo., and endorsed by GOP leaders on the House Energy and Commerce Committee would ban municipal networks entirely in an effort to spur private investment in unserved areas.

There’s also a disagreement about the necessary level of investment. Biden’s $100 billion plan mirrors the leading proposals by Democrats in Congress but places him far from a compromise with Republicans who say broadband in unserved areas should cost closer to $20 billion.

Still, it’s possible there’s a deal to be struck. Republicans could offer their support for the “hard” infrastructure aspects of Biden’s broadband plan, such as the construction and deployment of new networks in rural and tribal areas, but oppose social programs such as subsidies to help families afford service. They could also oppose efforts to force private companies to lower costs.

Stuck in an awkward position if they continue to insist that broadband expansion doesn’t fit their definition of infrastructure, this may be the needle Republicans seek to thread: Oppose the price tag and the policy agenda while backing some investments in construction and deployment.

Some GOP leaders already appear to be making the shift. In a recent appearance on Fox News Sunday, Roy Blunt of Missouri, the fourth-ranking Senate Republican, included broadband in the roughly 30 percent of Biden’s plan that Republicans would consider supporting.

“If we go back and look at roads and bridges and ports and airports, and maybe even underground water systems and broadband, you’d still be talking about less than 30 percent of this entire package,” Blunt said.