Law360 (March 31, 2021, 4:03 PM EDT) — The Biden administration’s ambitious infrastructure package announced Wednesday would spend $100 billion to get the entire country connected to broadband service, a goal the administration says is reasonable and achievable.
The wide-ranging, eight-year investment plan declares that “broadband internet is the new electricity” and aims to prioritize the funding to community-based institutions and nonprofits instead of commercial carriers.
“The president believes we can bring affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to every American through a historic investment of $100 billion,” the White House said in a fact sheet detailing the American Jobs Plan. “It will bring affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to every American, including the more than 35% of rural Americans who lack access to broadband at minimally acceptable speeds.”
To do so, the administration said it would target the infrastructure funds to “providers with less pressure to turn profits and with a commitment to serving entire communities,” such as municipally owned networks, tribal governments and nonprofit organizations that partner with communities to deliver broadband service.
The administration said it would also prioritize “lifting barriers that prevent municipally owned or affiliated providers and rural electric co-ops from competing on an even playing field with private providers,” although it didn’t immediately offer further details on what that might look like.
The White House further indicated that the plan will somehow address broadband affordability and familiarity issues that particularly prevent rural and low-income communities from getting and using the internet when it is available. That would include working with Congress to find “a solution to reduce internet prices for all Americans” and “requiring internet providers to clearly disclose the prices they charge,” the White House said.
Some members of the broadband industry reacted positively to the American Jobs Plan, with one rural broadband trade group suggesting the administration should prioritize funding the expensive yet durable broadband delivery method of fiber in its quest to connect the entire country.
“If we have learned anything from the last year, it is that connections matter, broadband matters — and speed and capacity matter,” said NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield in a statement. “We need to aim high and invest in efficient and scalable technologies like fiber to meet the needs not only of today’s consumers but also tomorrow’s.”
Christina Mason, vice president of government affairs for WISPA, a group that advocates for providers using a mix of fiber and wireless technologies to connect rural communities, said “the president’s focus is right on target.”
In a statement, Mason suggested the administration could further leverage the assets of community broadband providers by allocating “more spectrum for small innovators” and providing “nondiscriminatory access to physical infrastructure for small broadband providers.”
Despite some of the initial positive reactions, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation’s Doug Brake pushed back on the tremendous government-backed investments proposed by the plan and cautioned that they could cannibalize broadband progress that the private sector has already been making.
“Biden’s broadband infrastructure plan goes overboard and threatens to undermine the system of private competition that successfully serves most of the United States,” he said in a statement. “If not properly targeted, such a large investment risks undermining incentives for private capital to invest even where it can do so profitably, which ultimately erodes the engine of innovation for next-generation connectivity.”
A senior administration official told reporters on a Tuesday press call that President Joe Biden isn’t worried about push back on too much government spending right now, especially on the heels of the $1.9 trillion corona virus relief package passed
“He’s going to make the argument for why investing in transportation infrastructure, investing in water infrastructure, investing in broadband — including in rural areas — are all not only common sense areas where we’ve seen and continue to see bipartisan support … but they’re also really important to people, to communities all across the country right now,” the official said.
The Internet Innovation Alliance also raised concerns about how the plan frowns upon subsidizing end user internet service through programs such as the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline subsidy fund as a long-term solution.
“It’s unrealistic to think that broadband prices could be artificially lowered, as the plan recommends, to a point that they are affordable for Americans most in need of assistance, while simultaneously leaving service providers with sufficient revenue to build, upgrade and maintain the networks that keep the United States globally competitive,” said the group, whose members range from nonprofits to AT&T. “A modernized Lifeline program providing adequate subsidies to ensure that those most in need are connected is a far better approach.”
Biden’s infrastructure plan comes as Congress and the Federal Communications Commission are working to distribute billions of dollars in broadband grants and subsidy funds to internet providers tasked with connecting wide swaths of rural America. The first phase of the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund recently doled out $9.2 billion to providers committing to serve areas that completely lack broadband.
Similarly, the Commerce Department’s broadband and spectrum arm is standing up three grant programs — worth more than $1.5 billion as outlined by the Consolidated Appropriations Act in late December — to address glaring connectivity gaps in Native American communities, at educational institutions serving minorities and in rural areas hit hard by the pandemic.
House Democrats’ infrastructure package, which was reintroduced in early March, also includes a significant broadband component , seeking to dedicate more than $94 billion to internet expansion and affordability.
–Editing by Stephen Berg.