In Washington, there is a tense battle between Republicans and Democrats over President Biden's infrastructure plan, from the amount of funding it contains to the definition of infrastructure. However, when it comes to addressing the internet and bridging the digital divide, there seems to be a clear consensus that broadband is very, very important and very, very bipartisan. It is a mirage.
Earlier this week, Vice President Kamala Harris met with members of Congress from both parties to work out the logistics for funding broadband through the infrastructure package. Senator Amy Klobuchar told the Minnesota local media that the discussion is focused only on "nuts and bolts."
While Republicans and the White House are still debating the cost of the entire infrastructure package, they agreed on how much the package should spend on broadband – $ 65 billion – after Biden agreed to compromise last week. The new number represents a significant reduction from its original broadband proposal, which was priced at $ 100 billion. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the decision was "all in a spirit of finding common ground." It seems the details are still to be found out.
Although the parties have agreed on a number, there is no consensus on how broadband should actually work and who should be prioritized by federal efforts. Reaching an agreement on funding broadband is only part of the puzzle and there are deep mistakes and disagreements about what this funding will achieve that could have a significant impact on who will be connected and who will really benefit from it. Republicans and Democrats alike have said that the pandemic has highlighted the vital role of the internet in everyday life, but they have profound disagreements about what portion of the cake traditional cable operators should have.
A major disagreement is a long simmering debate about the idea of municipal broadband. In the United States, some local governments, nonprofits, and cooperatives have made long-term investments to build their own broadband networks without relying on the private sector. Biden is a huge fan of this approach. The White House calls these municipal broadband networks "providers with less profit pressure and an obligation to serve entire communities". Large cable companies in particular, which benefit from being the only provider in many areas, do not like this competition and have even campaigned for laws that prohibit it. Broadband Now, an ISP website, states that municipal broadband is restricted in at least 18 states.
Some efforts are still successful. The Electric Power Board in Chattanooga, Tennessee, managed to set up its own gigabit broadband network despite opposition, including from the cable provider Comcast (Comcast is an investor in Vox Media, which Recode belongs to). Biden wants efforts such as Chattanooga's to be eligible for funding from his infrastructure plan.
But in Congress Republicans are against it, saying there are places where the municipalities haven't worked and the taxpayers have been in debt, the Senate Republican Policy Committee pointed out in a letter released earlier this month. Some House Republicans have even proposed national laws restricting these types of networks. NCTA, a lobbying group that represents a wide range of media and telecommunications companies including Comcast, Charter and Cox Communications, said of Biden's plan, “Common goals will not be achieved by falsely pointing out that the entire network is down and that the solution is either to prioritize government networks or to micromanage private networks. "
"Cable and telephone lobbyists have long argued that this is socialism, that it harms American businesses," Christopher Mitchell, director of the community broadband program at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, told Recode. "The lobbyists who wanted to stop broadband competition realized that the Republican Party's ideology was deeply skeptical of public investment."
However, public and private investment is not the only source of error in the recent bipartisan consensus on broadband funding. There is also long and persistent disagreement between Republicans and Democrats about what kind of technology should be used to facilitate these internet connections. Currently, many people route the Internet to their homes over coaxial cable networks, while some still rely on DSL copper phone lines, which are even slower. Biden believes that should change and that US broadband should be fast and "future-proof," a term Republicans have interpreted as the code for fiber. Fiber, proponents have argued, would take decades and could be easily adapted to meet ever-increasing speed requirements.
Republicans have stated, however, that Biden's definition of high-speed and “future-proof” would call too many households into question for subsidies that could go to people who don't necessarily need internet updates. They have also accused the Democrats of trying to subsidize "faster speeds (which) allow more elaborate internet use", such as streaming content in 4K, which could bring innovation to a standstill by putting their "thumbs on the scales" by prioritizing one type of technology: fiber. Back in February, Republicans on the House's Energy and Trade Committee proposed a series of 28 bills that focused on deregulation, and during a March hearing, Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH) described building high-speed Internet as "accurate "Opposite of what has to happen" and would leave rural Americans behind.
There are companies that operate fiber optics themselves or need them to set up 5G networks. However, older cable providers are likely to benefit if the government does not prioritize this type of connection. (For example, NCTA, the lobby group, has argued that federal money should instead be focused on areas with very poor or no internet connectivity.) Traditional cable providers, who may be the only Internet providers for some consumers, don't necessarily want to compete with new fiber-optic options, said Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, referring to companies like Comcast and Charter.
But Biden and those who support his plan say it is important to focus on these more advanced systems as the demand for internet will only increase and the country will have to invest in technology that could last for decades.
"This is a one-time investment we can make," said Greg Guice, director of government affairs for Public Knowledge. "If you rely on some of these older technologies like copper, you just can't get the speed you really need to meet the demands that will be placed on the future of the network."
Underlying tensions between Republicans and Democrats are different views on the scope of the challenge. Republicans and cable companies want to focus the broadband discussion on areas and communities that currently have very little connectivity. Switching to high speed and fiber shouldn't be the focus. But Democrats, along with some Republicans, have said the country should have a higher standard for internet speeds. This approach, explains Guice, would give more support to the deployment of fiber optics and shape the broadband issue to include suburban and urban communities where there is no internet connection.
While the Federal Communications Commission has estimated that approximately 30 million Americans do not have access to broadband, that does not include people who technically have access to the Internet but cannot afford it, a problem that is exacerbated in areas in which there is only such an internet provider. There is also the process of "digital redlining" where ISPs have left color communities and low-income communities with poorer internet access.
It is not clear whether these tensions will be resolved in this recent infrastructure debate. After all, the pandemic has made it clear that a connection is not just about internet access. It is of vital importance to have an Internet that is good enough to support multiple people at the same time with multiple devices, and that may need that connection to do something from work, to learn on a medical one Appointment to attend. Future-proof advocates say that fiber not only lasts longer, it also recognizes that demand for the Internet will not fall or stagnate. It will only grow.
As Guice says, "Would we think it reasonable to add a dirt road to I-95?"