Joe Biden is looking to enlist the government in a game-changing modernization of broadband internet, an effort some liken to FDR’s sweeping crusade for rural electrification.
In the latter part of the 2000s, Ammon, Idaho, a city of 16,000 people in the southeastern part of the state, was experiencing a familiar problem for small communities in rural areas: The internet access was inadequate and not affordable enough to serve the people living there. And it got personal for the city when officials looked into connecting two city buildings with a high-speed connection.
The phone company said it couldn’t do it. The local cable company said, sure – but it’ll cost you: $80,000 up front to put the fiber in and $1,000 a month for the service.
So Ammon went it alone, contracting to build its own fiber-optic cable, at a cost of $12,000. Since then, the city has made creative use of local financing mechanisms to offer broadband service to all residents and businesses in the area. Today, the city has gotten on the technology map with a startling distinction: With an average internet access rate of $9.99 a month, Ammon is the most affordable place for broadband service in a dataset of U.S. cities, according to a report by the Open Technology Institute.
“It proved to us that we could do it ourselves,” says Bruce Patterson, who is transitioning from his job as technology director for the city of Ammon to work for an operation that is helping other cities replicate the Idaho city model. “This isn’t about competition. This is about an essential service,” he adds, noting a city council resolution declaring broadband as critical to the community’s economic development and the health and education of its residents.
That’s a conclusion largely shared by lawmakers in both major parties as they negotiate an infrastructure package. Broadband long ago stopped being a tool for entertainment and convenient communication and became essential to job searching and recruitment, education and telehealth – especially in communities with few doctors. During the pandemic, reliable broadband access became even more important, as people traveled what was once called the “information superhighway” instead of actual highways to get to work and school.
“It’s become sort of a fundamental right, in a way. It’s become a requirement, in some sense, to live our lives – to get educated, to get access to health care, to get to the workplace nowadays,” says Swarun Kumar, who heads Carnegie Mellon University’s Emerging Wireless Technologies Lab. “It’s sort of transformed from being a luxury to being a fundamental utility we all need.”
“(Internet access) has become a requirement, in some sense, to live our lives – to get educated, to get access to health care, to get to the workplace.”
In health care, “broadband access is essential – period. It’s paramount to health literacy and education” as well as to telehealth, wherein patients are evaluated and treated remotely, says Dr. Ryan Bosch, a Reston, Virginia, internist who founded Socially Determined, a company that addresses how factors such as food insecurity, health literacy and lack of stable housing impact overall health.
Schooling, too, now demands that both educational institutions and students have high-speed, reliable broadband. Some 12 million school children lack broadband access – a problem that was exacerbated during pandemic-era remote learning, notes Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director of advocacy and governance at AASA, The School Superintendents Association. “Twenty-four-hour learners need 24-hour access,” she says. “The pandemic didn’t create (the gap). It just blew it wide open.”
A March 2020 study by the University of Michigan found that students without fast and reliable internet access do more poorly on homework completion, digital understanding and grade point averages. They were also less likely to be considering college.
While statistics on internet access vary, the Federal Communications Commission reports that 19 million Americans lack high-speed internet access. The Biden administration, seeking to expand broadband access to every American in its infrastructure spending proposal, says 42 million Americans lack “reliable” access, and that a third of rural and tribal communities – the very people who also have less access to on-site medical care and other needs – do not have broadband access.
The issue facing Congress is what role the government should play in extending broadband – and how much it should dole out to make it happen.
The Biden administration likens broadband to the FDR-era rural electrification, a game-changing modernization that the government should lead to bring rural and other underserved communities into the 21st century.
Conservatives agree that more internet access is needed, but they’d prefer a market approach, with private companies encouraged to expand access with reduced regulation and financial incentives.
Biden originally proposed a $2.25 trillion infrastructure and jobs plan that included $100 billion for broadband – an item he said must be included as essential infrastructure.
After a pushback by Republicans on the price tag, Biden lowered his ask to $1.7 trillion, with the broadband portion lowered to $65 billion. The latter amount is similar to what Republicans have offered in their most recent counter proposal, which has an overall cost of $928 billion.
Neither side of the negotiations has laid out a detailed plan for how to expand broadband access. But their respective rhetoric reveals a philosophical divide on how to view the service. Is it similar to a public utility, like water and sewer, that demands a strong government role to ensure universal access? Or is it a private sector offer, one that government can help make more available by providing incentives to cable and technology companies?
House Republicans, unveiling a separate $20 billion broadband bill, made clear they are not interested in turning broadband into a quasi-government utility.
“By relying on a light-touch regulatory environment and targeted investments – rather than cumbersome government-run networks – we will ensure reliable, affordable access for the communities who need it most,” GOP Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington and Rep. Bob Latta of Ohio said in a statement laying out the plan.
Biden, however, appears to be leaning toward more direct involvement by governments. Vice President Kamala Harris, whom the president has tasked with the broadband access issue, told participants of a virtual “listening session” this week that the undertaking was exactly like FDR’s Rural Electrification Administration.
“What he did and what they then did was to send crews to rural communities helping to wire farms and homes with electricity. So, literally, government lit up America,” Harris said. “Today, I believe we must act again, and act in that way – understanding our capacity and our responsibility to connect America and to allow all Americans to have access to those basic needs that allow them to raise their families, allow them to educate their families, to do their work.”
Biden has also discussed lifting barriers that prevent municipalities or rural co-ops from competing with private providers – as Ammon was able to do. In the Idaho city’s case, internet service itself is provided by private companies, which use the city-built fiber optic cable.
Biden also wants to “future proof” broadband, a term interpreted to mean he wants to lay fixed fiber-optic cable instead of expanding access through cellular networks.
Cellular networks may not be enough, critics say: The Michigan State University study, for example, found that students accessing the internet through their cellphones struggled more in their studies. And when several people are using cellular access – such as occurred when working parents and school children were at home during the pandemic – service is too slow to accommodate the household’s needs, experts say.
Those differences will need to be worked out when – and if – Congress and the White House agree on an infrastructure plan. But there’s little disagreement on the overall need to expand broadband access.
“Coming out of this (pandemic), there is the understanding that connectivity isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity,” says Joe Boyle, CEO of Truce Software, a company whose product allows businesses to limit access on mobile devices for safety and security reasons. “The fact is that everybody just lived through a year or more of being a mobile worker,” he says – and that’s a trend experts believe is likely to continue as the pandemic eases, making broadband even more critical.