The pandemic exposed just how critical access to the internet is for Americans. When schools shifted to online learning and employees were forced to work remotely, internet connectivity and speed became top of mind for households.
At least 18 million Americans lack reliable high-speed internet access according to federal regulators. As a result, we have a digital divide in America that federal lawmakers want to close. This is an excellent goal, but a new legislative effort presents the wrong way to achieve it. The bill would expand the scope and power of the federal government, but not do enough to actually expand broadband access to those who need it.
Recently, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a measure to spend $40 billion on making broadband internet more affordable and accessible. The Broadband Reform and Investment to Drive Growth in the Economy Act (BRIDGE) comes as Congress and the White House are negotiating a massive infrastructure spending package that may include funding for broadband expansion. The BRIDGE Act could be a starting point for broadband discussions and if so, we need to end that conversation now.
Most fundamentally, the BRIDGE Act is supposed to close the digital divide, but provisions in the bill actually work against that goal.
Positively, the bill provides funds for “unserved areas,” which are those lacking Federal Communications Commission-recommended minimum broadband speeds of 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload speeds (25/3 Mbps). However, the BRIDGE Act only permits 50 percent of the funds to go to those areas. The other 50 percent must go to “underserved areas” or those areas that lack 100/25 Mbps speed.
Faster download speeds are helpful as families balance recreation, working, and learning at home all at the same time, but that should not trump the most critical need of getting more households connected. This issue is about the haves and the have nots of internet access. It’s unfair to divert funding away from households with no broadband access to those that have access but would like faster speeds. The result of this would be to leave gross inequities in place and, frankly, to make them worse.
In addition, the bill creates a third category called “other qualifying areas” that would allow funding to go to areas that lack symmetrical gigabit speed (100/100 Mbps) once the “underserved” are taken care of. We could end up in a situation where the digital divide grows deeper as those with fair or good internet get better service and those without any service remain in the dark.
We cannot ignore the political motivations driving these priorities. Rural America tends to be unserved while urban areas tend to have access to broadband but not all at faster and/or symmetrical speeds. Lawmakers on the left, who represent urban areas are looking out for their constituents, even if it is at the expense of citizens who are more in need, but who vote differently.
Misplaced priorities are not the only problem with the BRIDGE Act. It gives states new authority to set minimum requirements on internet speeds of newly-built networks above the federal minimum. This could create a patchwork of requirements that private companies would have to navigate.
Meanwhile, the bill would allow the federal government to trample on state authority in another way. Currently, states can prohibit cities and locales from creating their own broadband networks, but this would change under the BRIDGE Act. The federal government regulates commerce across state lines and should not be meddling in what happens within a state’s boundaries.
In addition, the BRIDGE Act allows the federal government to meddle in the private market by forcing companies to provide broadband options to low-income households at artificially-low rates. Who can object to high-quality services at low rates for those with fewer means, right? Wrong. Economics does not work that way.
First, the private sector is already providing such options (undirected by the government) with programs that range from $10-$20 a month. Second, price controls will lead to fewer choices as companies would find this unaffordable and simply stop offering any programs at all. Price controls could also discourage companies from innovating new offerings for consumers at all price points and investing in broadband expansion.
The goal of the BRIDGE Act is on point, but the provisions of this bill hide counterproductive measures and heavy-headed federal overreach that won’t close the digital divide but only make it worse.