Something for everyone in infrastructure deal’s broadband section

One expert worries president and Democrats ‘surrendered too much’ during talks with GOP

President Joe Biden, flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris, delivers remarks Tuesday on the Senate's bipartisan infrastructure bill, which includes far less for broadband programs than he sought. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden, flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris, delivers remarks Tuesday on the Senate's bipartisan infrastructure bill, which includes far less for broadband programs than he sought. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Posted August 13, 2021 at 9:00am

The broadband section of the Senate’s bipartisan infrastructure bill includes victories for Republicans and Democrats alike, leaving both sides and the telecommunications industry largely satisfied with how the legislation would allocate $65 billion aimed at closing the “digital divide” between Americans with high-speed internet access and those without.

The bulk of the funding in the bill would seek to tackle issues of access and affordability that experts on both sides of the broadband debate agree are the main obstacles to universal access. More than $42 billion would go toward broadband deployment in unserved or underserved areas, while another $14 billion would fund a monthly internet subsidy for low-income families.

Those are the marquee items the legislation’s negotiators highlighted as it methodically worked its way toward Senate passage earlier this week on a 69-30 floor vote.

“The bipartisan infrastructure bill isn’t a panacea, but it’s a historic step toward bridging the digital divide,” Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., a lead negotiator, told The Washington Post.

After the bill passed, President Joe Biden said it would “deliver affordable, high-speed Internet to every American.” About a quarter of American households don’t have a broadband connection, according to a June estimate by the Pew Research Center.

But Biden said the same about the much larger $100 million broadband investment he originally proposed, a figure around which Senate and House Democrats had coalesced in recent years. 

Concessions

Christopher Ali, an associate professor of media studies at the University of Virginia who congressional Democrats have called to testify on broadband issues, said the deployment funding in the bipartisan bill may not be enough to get the job done.

“Forty-two billion is certainly nothing to sneeze at,” Ali said. “A lot of good will be done at $42 billion, so long as the right protections are in place. It will not connect everybody though.”

The lower figure is a victory for Republicans, as they were concerned that more funding would lead to waste, fraud or abuse in the procurement process. Michael O’Rielly, a former Republican commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, said $42 billion “makes more sense and is more manageable” for broadband deployment.

“It’s still gigantic,” O’Rielly said. “And the idea that the progressives are pushing for even more money to be added through budget reconciliation is just outrageous in my mind.”

Ali was critical of the deal in other areas, contending Democrats “surrendered too much.”

For instance, the bipartisan deal doesn’t include provisions Biden originally proposed to eliminate restrictions on municipal broadband networks and prioritize grant funding for nonprofits, educational organizations and other community-based institutions over private sector entities.

“The funding of U.S. telecommunications has historically privileged the largest providers,” Ali said. “That’s why I was excited when the original plan privileged municipalities and cooperatives and local internet service providers, the ones who are really getting the connectivity done in rural and remote areas. And, obviously, all of that language was stripped.”

O’Rielly called the lack of priority for municipal networks “a win, in my mind, for sound policy.”

“If you look at those states that preempt municipal government ownership, almost all of them are not full bans,” O’Rielly said. “They are contingent, or conditioned on certain things” — like having a business model or having certain revenue streams already in place, he added, calling those “completely logical and defensible positions.”

The compromise was likely key to getting the telecommunications industry on board, O’Rielly said, along with Democratic concessions on increased speed requirements.

“I think the industry is begrudgingly accepting of the infrastructure bill because it solved a lot of their initial complaints,” he said.

Digital equity

But Democrats won other policy victories, including a proposed $2.75 billion in digital equity funding for the Commerce Department to establish broadband grant programs for historically underserved communities. The deal also bans the practice of “digital redlining.”

Ali also applauded the expansion of the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which Congress established in response to the coronavirus pandemic to help low-income families and unemployed or furloughed Americans afford their monthly internet bill.

The bill would make the program permanent, rename it the Affordable Connectivity Program and add $14 billion to its coffers.

But the bill would reduce the current $50 per month benefit to $30, a figure Ali said is too low for many families. The average American household pays around $60 per month.

“If we’re going to make broadband truly affordable, either we need to make sure that providers have a low-cost tier or we need to make sure that the subsidy for affordability covers the entirety of a monthly bill,” Ali said. “This piece of legislation does neither of these things.”

Still, that the Senate bill makes the program permanent is a victory for everyone, O’Rielly said.

“The real issue is addressing affordability in a permanent way and having a program that addresses it,” he said. “And then you can adjust the dials to figure out what’s the best level and what gets adoption levels up.”