Brief #43 – Technology
Is Broadband Internet Access for All Possible? Ask the Biden Administration
By Charles A. Rubin
The Biden administration infrastructure bill will prioritize broadband expansion as a top goal. The plan earmarks $100 billion to bring affordable internet to all Americans by 2029.
The plan’s goals are to reach 100% high-speed broadband coverage across the US by prioritizing broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, and cooperatives. The emphasis of this plan is to not make this endeavor the province of big tech for which the Biden administration has a healthy mistrust. The scope is on a scale as such projects as rural electrification during the administration of FDR. Is it enough?
According to Microsoft, who did a study of the broadband gap in 2020, 157.3 million people in the US do not access the internet at broadband speeds and, according to BroadbandNow, who has advocated for universal broadband access since 2015, at least 42 million people do not have internet access at all.
The implication of this technology shortcoming has become more stark as the COVID 19 pandemic has dragged on into its 2nd year. Millions of people today aren’t just being left behind, they’re being left out of everyday life. While many have the luxury of working from home, using telehealth services or attending classes remotely, huge swaths of the country are forced to drive long distances to pick up schoolwork or camp out in public library parking lots to access Wi-Fi.
The digital divide is a multifaceted problem. Closing the gap requires attention to both availability and affordability: subsidizing construction of networks in places where the business case does not support investment and providing assistance to low-income families that have access to broadband networks but cannot afford the monthly service and equipment needed to get online.
This is where the Biden plan is transformational. While big tech is likely to reap some benefit in terms of equipment sales and services, the main thrust of the plan is providing local governments, not-for-profits and cooperatives the tools to build networks to serve their communities. This is a long overdue recognition that connectivity is not a luxury but an essential service that all citizens are entitled to.
There is also a danger of relying on the public sector too heavily. Information technology is a rapidly changing field and the technologies to provide services and equipment to unserved and underserved areas are ever-evolving. The Biden plan needs to incorporate the flexibility to adopt new equipment and modalities as they become available, accurately define what connectivity speeds are acceptable and be cognizant of when those requirements shift.
It is an admirable goal to get everyone connected but we need to be aware that the definition of connectivity could change and agility is as important as coverage. Ten years ago, DSL was a relatively cheap and acceptable way to access the internet. Today, a family trying to school, work and carry on household functions would be crippled by using DSL. The oublic access strategy that emerges needs to have the ability to adopt, whatever is coming next, built in.