The recently signed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will assign $65 billion for broadband development, becoming the largest federal investment in broadband in U.S. history. This urgent measure was long overdue after almost everything — from work to school and medical care — went virtual due to the pandemic. Under the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program, most of the funding for broadband will go to internet service providers (ISPs) for building the infrastructure needed to provide broadband to underserved areas of the country. Another significant amount will expand the Emergency Broadband Benefit program under a new name, the Affordable Connectivity Program, originally created during the pandemic to give eligible households a monthly amount to cover internet costs. Finally, the bipartisan infrastructure bill also instructs the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to require ISPs to include a broadband consumer label with their products — similar to nutrition labels on food — to promote informed decisions among consumers.
As has been widely documented, increased broadband penetration leads to economic growth. According to a report from Deloitte, a 10-percentage-point increase in broadband access in 2014 would have resulted in more than 875,000 additional U.S. jobs and $186 billion more in economic output in 2019. A broadband connection allows people to access more job opportunities, healthcare services, virtual education, among many other benefits. Moreover, as more public services rely on digital technologies, including government services, the exercise of citizenship depends on access to the internet. Having a reliable and affordable high-speed internet connection is crucial to participating as equals in society. In that sense, the importance of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act lies in recognizing that broadband is as essential as electricity or running water to U.S. citizens.
However, the last two years have shown profound differences in internet connectivity. There is a market failure in many rural areas of the U.S. ISPs are unwilling to invest in building the necessary infrastructure for broadband access due to low population density or difficult geography. The rural and tribal communities with internet access usually pay higher prices for slower service than most densely populated areas. Moreover, urban areas are not exempt from this issue. Although they have networks already in place, low-income and elderly populations, particularly African American and Hispanic/Latino, cannot necessarily afford the costs of having internet service at home.
As of October 2020, the FCC estimates that more than 14.5 million Americans do not have broadband. However, the FCC’s data collection methods have been heavily criticized, and the number may be higher. According to the FCC, for a Census block (the unit of area used) to be considered served, ISPs only need to indicate that they can offer broadband to at least one home, even if the rest of the homes are not connected. More recent studies suggest that the number of Americans lacking broadband could be around 42 million, and a study from Microsoft even estimated the number could be 120.4 million people. Moreover, the FCC defines broadband as having at least a download speed of 25 Mbps and an upload speed of 3 Mbps. For today’s internet use, when video calls and streaming services are often needed, that speed might be too slow. For these reasons, the reality is likely even worse than estimated.
Although millions of dollars have already been spent to tackle these issues, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act represents a great opportunity to reduce the digital divide. Under the guidance of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, states will need to administer the grants based on their needs to guarantee accessible and affordable broadband to their population. State actions should include the more accurate mapping of broadband availability and use in each state in order to allocate resources strategically. As experts argue, states can prioritize subsidizing local providers instead of the usually benefited telecommunications and cable companies like AT&T, CenturyLink, Frontier, Verizon, Windstream, etc., which spend millions of dollars in lobbying and have not delivered as expected. Local providers — including electric and telephone cooperatives, nonprofits, public-private partnerships, and municipal and county networks — are not tied to making profits and can be held accountable by their own communities. Their proximity to their community’s needs puts local ISPs in the best position to achieve broadband for all.