The economic shutdown due to COVID-19 has made Americans more reliant on internet access than ever before. Shopping, healthcare, social connections, and even education have become dependent on digital access to keep daily life moving. These changes have been particularly devastating for the more than 18 million Americans who lack reliable internet access. Children in areas without reliable broadband could not access remote learning services, leading to an even more severe disruption in their learning and development, and leaving working class parents without good options to educate their kids. Both Republicans and Democrats agree that expanding digital access for all Americans should be a top priority.
President Biden and Congressional Democrats are launching a full-scale effort to pass the “American Jobs Plan,” a $2 trillion dollar boondoggle full of longstanding far-left wish list items mostly related to green energy, but that includes a dedicated $100 billion dollars for broadband. While well-meaning, the plan would fail for two reasons. First, the Biden plan “prioritizes support for broadband networks owned, operated by, or affiliated with local governments.” This is a mistake: the government simply can’t do broadband better than the private sector, and years of failures of such government-run networks are well documented.
Second, the plan would impose an arbitrary redefinition of “broadband” speed that would see dollars dry up without bringing rural Americans online. The plan would require that federal funds only go to “future-proof” networks, a nod to House Democrats’ infrastructure plan that would redefine the minimum speed of “broadband” from the current definition of 25/3 Mbps download/upload to 100/100. While big, round numbers sound good on paper, they can carry a huge cost. Americans today use a mix of technologies to access the Internet (cable, fixed wireless, 5G, etc). But the Democrat’s plan would only allow federal funds to support fiber due to its ability to offer symmetrical upload and download speeds. Fiber also happens to be the most expensive broadband technology to deploy to individual homes and businesses.
Not only would this mandate distort market incentives and discourage investment in gigabit cable, 5G wireless, next-gen satellite, and other technologies, it’s also unnecessary. Americans do far more downloading than uploading, by a factor of 14 to 1, according to one estimate. That’s why most of our broadband networks reflect these consumer preferences. Thanks to private investment, over 80 percent of Americans already enjoy access to gigabit download speeds that are 10 times what House Democrats consider to be “future proofed,” thanks to private sector investment.
But insisting on a minimum of 100 Mbps upload would dramatically expand the scope of what we mean by “unserved” areas. The FCC estimates that at least 18 million Americans lack access to broadband at speeds of 25/3. The vast majority of those Americans live in rural areas. If the speed threshold jumps to 100/100, over 200 million Americans would suddenly be considered “unserved” by broadband and their communities would become eligible for subsidies. In the competition for federal funds, this would pit rural communities with no broadband against urban and suburban communities that already have broadband. And dollars will naturally flow to those densely-populated areas because they’re easier and cheaper to serve. That $100 billion won’t go very far if the government wants to build fiber to reach over 200 million Americans, as opposed to the 18 million who currently lack Internet access.
If the administration wants to bring more Americans online, it will focus on supporting broadband deployment to those Americans who truly lack meaningful Internet access today, while ensuring that those low-income Americans who already have access can afford it. There’s plenty of bipartisan support for that approach. But if the administration wants to squander $100 billion on unnecessary, wasteful, and duplicative networks, then government-run fiber is the way to go.