President Biden set out to Pittsburgh on Wednesday to roll out a sweeping infrastructure proposal that could completely revamp—among many other things—the way the country gets online.
Dubbed the American Jobs Plan, this massive infrastructure overhaul, plans to set aside $2 trillion over the next eight years to be spent on major fixes that both major parties have championed for some time, like updates to the country’s collapsing bridges and contaminated tap water. It also carves out a $100 billion investment meant to “bring affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband to every American,” both by building out new broadband infrastructure in the rural communities and by offering assistance where high-speed connections are available but costly.
“Generations ago, the federal government recognized that without affordable access to electricity, Americans couldn’t fully participate in modern society and the modern economy,” the White House said. “Broadband internet is the new electricity. It is necessary for Americans to do their jobs, to participate equally in school learning, health care, and to stay connected.”
Meanwhile, the ongoing pandemic has thrown a pretty harsh spotlight onto the so-called “digital divide.” The White House’s proposal explains that “by one definition,” there are roughly 30 million people across the country—largely living within rural communities, or housed on tribal land—without access to the broadband infrastructure needed to connect to the net at “minimally acceptable speeds.” In fact, the real number of households without access is likely much bigger. While we’ve seen the FCC tout the 30 million figure in the past, we also know that the FCC’s broadband maps that the agency uses to track the haves and have-nots when it comes to wireless access are notoriously faulty. Just as an example, one 2020 report from the consumer-advocacy group Broadband Now put the number of Americans without broadband closer to 42 million.
Then there’s the fact that even in urban and suburban markets where broadband is available, it’s often too expensive to access in the first place. As Biden’s proposal lays out, this is a problem that hits communities of color far harder than their white counterparts—a fact that’s often overlooked in federal policies seeking to expand countrywide connectivity.
The $100 billion investment Biden’s administration plans to tackle these issues with a three-pronged plan: first, some of that cash will be dedicated to building what it calls “future proof” broadband infrastructure in the areas that need it, prioritizing support for broadband operators owned or affiliated with local governments, non-profits, and co-ops, since these providers will be “less [pressured] to turn profits” at the risk of harming entire communities. The proposal also promises to set aside funds specifically for tribal lands, and it assures that the communities living there will be “consulted” by the program’s overseers as this goes forward.
As for communities that have broadband access but no means to actually afford it, the path forward is a bit less clear. Last December, funds that were allotted as part of the Congressional COVID relief bill were funneled into a $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program that offered a $50 monthly subsidy to help low-income households pay for broadband access—but that well’s going to dry up eventually.
“While the President recognizes that individual subsidies to cover internet costs may be needed in the short term, he believes continually providing subsidies to cover the cost of overpriced internet service is not the right long-term solution for consumers or taxpayers,” the White House stated. Instead, the administration plans to “[work] with Congress” to find a way to reduce these prices across the board, instead.
Finally, the administration plans to level the playing field among internet providers, in part, by requiring they “clearly disclose” the prices they charge. Meaning that the sorts of shitty hidden fees that some ISP’s manage to sneak into their services might finally be fully on display, rather than buried somewhere in their terms of service.
Granted, there’s still the debate over paying the hefty price tag that comes with these sorts of lofty proposals. While the administration pitched tax hikes—particularly tax hikes on large corporations—to foot a large part of the bill, the idea’s already facing pushback from some Republican lawmakers, who call the tax plan “misguided” and a way to make the country less competitive on a global scale.