President Joe Biden wants to spend $100 billion to connect every American to affordable high-speed internet. It’s a lofty goal that’s hard to dispute, right? Not exactly for lobbying groups representing cable and telecom companies that deliver those services. They’re worried Biden’s hefty spending plan will leave them out of the running for government grants and subsidies that could be used to offset the cost of building new infrastructure.
Key aspects of the broadband plan, announced last week as part of Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure package, include prioritizing spending for government-run or nonprofit networks. Those providers have “less pressure to turn profits” and “a commitment to serving entire communities,” according to a White House fact sheet.
The plan also prioritizes federal dollars to support companies deploying “future-proof” infrastructure, which many in the industry believe is a veiled reference to favoring companies building fiber infrastructure. And the last concern is about Biden’s pledge to make broadband more affordable by bringing down prices.
Michael Powell, head of the cable industry lobbying group NCTA, has called the Biden proposal a “serious wrong turn.” In a blog post this week, he said that the industry has the same goal as the president: “ensuring 100% of Americans have access to robust broadband networks.”
The pushback underscores many of the challenges facing Biden’s infrastructure plan, which has also drawn criticism on Capitol Hill. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, has called the plan a Trojan horse for progressive programs, while moderate Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia worries that the proposed tax increases on big businesses are too high. But even an initiative with broad support, like universal internet access, will likely require deft negotiation and compromise. Biden’s push comes as more than 30 million people still lack high-speed internet, according to the White House.
Powell, for his part, cautioned the Biden administration against pushing policies that would penalize incumbent broadband providers. He points to the billions of dollars in private investment in broadband infrastructure that has “achieved spectacular results over the last decade” — most notably, he said, it “met the enormous challenge of the pandemic, keeping Americans working from home, learning remotely, and using telehealth to stay safe” — as an important reason not to leave these companies out of future federal funding.
It’s a sentiment echoed by lobbyists representing the big telecom companies like AT&T and Verizon.
“Our shared communications networks are backed by $1.8 trillion in private investment that helped the country navigate the depths of the pandemic with reliable and resilient connectivity,” said Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of USTelecom, a trade group for the telecommunications industry.
Spalter added that Congress should continue to look for ways to “incentivize continued private investment to get the job done.”
Broadband is essential
The pandemic shed a bright light on the fact that broadband is essential to daily life. During the crisis, access to high-speed internet has become integral to our lives, as millions of Americans relied on broadband to work and to take part in remote learning.
But it’s also highlighted just how many people are still without access. It’s a problem that’s not limited to rural areas, but exists in cities as well. Broadband policy advocates have been sounding the alarm on this issue for years. In spite of billions of federal dollars being spent encouraging broadband providers to connect rural communities in the hardest-to-reach areas of the country, the digital divide persists. Between 2009 and 2017, the federal government spent $47.3 billion to get infrastructure to these communities, according to a 2020 report from the US Government Accountability Office.
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