Congress Pushes Bill to Spend Billions on Broadband Access

Congress advanced legislation to spend $65 billion to expand high-speed Internet access across the country. The government estimates 14 million U.S. households don’t have broadband, but other sources believe the figure is 40 million or higher. The measure’s allocation of $65 billion for broadband, which in part would subsidize low-income households, would be the biggest ever spent in the United States. Approved by the Senate as part of the $1 trillion infrastructure measure, the measure now faces a vote in the House.

The Wall Street Journal reports that, “the legislation recasts broadband service as a necessity, more akin to water and electricity, to which everyone should have access.” But, it notes, “the legislation stops short of turning broadband into a public utility, and in the short run will funnel cash to cable and fiber-optic companies that will help them build networks and acquire new customers.”

National Economic Council deputy director Bharat Ramamurti noted that, “it’s a more robust government role in a key part of the economy.” Some are worried about “provisions that empower federal and state officials to direct how new subsidies are spent, regulate pricing disclosures and authorize new rules preventing ‘digital discrimination’.”

At USTelecom, chief executive Jonathan Spalter noted that, “the details on implementation and the inevitable unintended consequences are going to matter.”

But other broadband providers “agree that government help is necessary to connect remote regions.” Lumen Technologies, a Louisiana-based ISP, noted that, “sparsely populated areas are difficult for any communications provider to serve due to the costs of building and maintaining the network infrastructure.”

President Biden “and his aides like to compare their broadband plans to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal policies spreading electricity through rural America.”

Their plan originally was to “steer federal broadband funds to local government, non-profits and other alternatives that would compete with incumbent private providers,” but Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), “the Republicans’ lead broadband negotiator, repeatedly threatened to hold the bill up until the administration and Democrats agreed to drop their most far-reaching demands.”

After bipartisan talks, the bill passed 69-to-30 with “19 Republicans joining all 50 in the Democratic caucus.”

At trade group NCTA, president Michael Powell said the group is “pleased that some of the troubling anti-industry language that was floated early in the process did not make it into the bill.” But Biden has also directed “agencies to write a plan to boost oversight of Internet service providers,” a move that former FCC official Gigi Sohn dubbed “an absolute sea change, a significant increase in the involvement of the federal and state government in the broadband market.”

A more hands-off approach, said some in the industry, “has encouraged investment in new networks,” with USTelecom estimating “the industry’s annual capital expenditures averaged about $74 billion between 2008 and 2019.”

Vickie Robinson, head of Microsoft’s initiative to expand Internet access, noted that now, “you have strange bedfellows coalitions, of civil rights groups aligning with big telecom companies.” The National Association of Realtors and American Telemedicine Association both see “expanded broadband as vital to growing their sectors … [and] Deere & Co. sees better rural connectivity as crucial to selling its more advanced farm equipment.”