As a researcher who studies internet policy and digital inequalities, I think the infrastructure plan should be celebrated as a historic moment for broadband, but not so much because of the money it brings. Rather, it’s because of the way the law treats Internet access in America.
In law, Congress finally recognizes that “access to affordable, reliable and high speed broadband is essential for full participation in modern life in the United States.” In other words, broadband access is akin to access to running water or electricity. This is essential infrastructure, the absence of which is an obstacle to economic competitiveness and to the “equitable distribution of essential public services, including health care and education”.
While decades of academic study have failed to convince Congress to enshrine this vision into law, the images of teachers in school parking lots and students outside fast food restaurants logging into remote courses during the COVID-19 pandemic likely did.
The law goes further by recognizing that “Numeric fraction disproportionately affects communities of color, low-income areas and rural areas ”, and orders the Federal Communications Commission to take action against access discrimination based on income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion or national origin. This is an important recognition of the role of broadband access in perpetuating cycles of poverty and community underdevelopment.
Numerous studies, including my own, have documented how investments in fiber optic lines and associated next-generation broadband infrastructure are go to richer communities, often bypassing low-income residents in highly urbanized areas such as Los Angeles and Detroit. The law not only allows the FCC to monitor and correct these practices, but it also helps align incentives for private investment with public benefits by creating the Affordable connectivity fund, a permanent broadband subsidy for low-income households.
Broadband investment in figures
The law provides $ 65 billion in new funding for broadband infrastructure expansion and adoption promotion. The most important of the many elements of the law is the amount of $ 42.5 billion Equity, access and deployment of broadband program, which goes to states to administer in the form of block grants to expand broadband networks. The second most important component is the $ 14.2 billion Affordable Connectivity Fund, which subsidizes eligible households with $ 30 per month for Internet access.
That’s a lot of funding needed, but broadband has a high bar when it comes to historic investments. The FCC Electronic tariff program, established in 1996 to help connect schools and libraries, has an annual budget of $ 4.2 billion. The Connect America Fund, created in 2011 to subsidize the cost of deploying broadband in high-cost areas, has a budget of $ 5 billion. Safety rope, created in 1996 to help low-income consumers pay for phones and the Internet, has a budget of $ 2.5 billion. Add up those investments over the years, and a one-time investment of $ 65 billion sounds less historic than the headlines suggest.
State capacity building
Making broadband available and more affordable isn’t enough to connect people. It also involves digital literacy training and awareness of connectivity opportunities. In a recent study in California, my colleagues and I found that only 1 in 5 low-income residents knew Broadband Emergency Benefit, a federal grant program launched in early 2021 to address Internet access disruptions linked to the pandemic.
The new law recognizes this challenge and creates two programs, the State Digital Equity Grants Program and the Competitive Digital Equity Grants Program, which aim to build state capacity and promote adoption of broadband through local community organizations. This marks a significant departure from the “build it and they will come” approach that has guided federal broadband policy development for decades.
Another important change from to the political status quo.
Previous versions of the bill containing wording giving priority to these entities for awarding grants were fiercely opposed by industry, which aimed to reduce competition from nonprofits and the public sector. Ultimately, the language of compromise allows states to fund public and nonprofit networks but does not anticipate state laws which prohibit municipal governments from managing their own ISPs. Despite the weakened support for public and not-for-profit broadband, the law signals a shift in favor of alternative models of network deployment and broadband delivery.
Making broadband affordable
Many of the key provisions of the law must be implemented at the state level. This raises legitimate questions given that several states have a poor track record of prioritizing fairness in the allocation of federal funds in related areas. like transport.
One example is the mandate of the law that recipients of network deployment grants must offer at least one low-cost service option to eligible subscribers. The law leaves the definition of low-cost and eligibility guidelines to states, albeit in consultation with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. If history provides any clue, industry incumbents are well placed to bend the rules in their favor at the state level.
At the very least, I believe the current FCC affordability benchmark 2% of household disposable income spent on telephone and Internet services should be the starting point for these discussions. My colleagues and I have shown that current spending on residential broadband alone for most low-income households far exceeds this reference.
Unsurprisingly, up to 1 in 4 low-income households in our survey said they had cut essential expenses such as health care, food or clothing to pay for broadband since the start of the pandemic. Lack of affordability disproportionately affects minority households, black residents, Native Americans, and those who identify as Hispanic are twice as likely to report having had to cut essential expenses to pay for Internet access.
A start of business as usual
Congress has long recognized the value public investments in transport, electricity and other essential infrastructure systems. These systems offer benefits to individuals, businesses and communities who well beyond their price. They are considered essential because they connect people to jobs, health care and educational opportunities.
For too long, broadband has been largely excluded from this picklist. By correcting the course, the new law is an important step towards an affordable internet for all.
Hernan Galperin is Associate Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.
This commentary was originally posted by The Conversation—Infrastructure law: broadband internet is as essential as water and electricity