Broadband Portion Of Bipartisan Infrastructure Plan Appears Watered Down But Still Helpful

from the watered-down dept

As we've noted previously, the broadband component of the Biden infrastructure bill has slowly been whittled down during "bipartisan negotiations." What was first a $100 billion proposal is now a $65 billion proposal, with things industry didn't like (like support for community broadband) slowly hollowed out. And while the White House fact sheet on the agreement offers some detail on the compromise (which still isn't technically final), it remains arguably vague:

"The deal’s $65 billion investment ensures every American has access to reliable high-speed internet with an historic investment in broadband infrastructure deployment, just as the federal government made a historic effort to provide electricity to every American nearly one hundred years ago.

The bill will also help lower prices for internet service by requiring funding recipients to offer a low-cost affordable plan, by creating price transparency and helping families comparison shop, and by boosting competition in areas where existing providers aren’t providing adequate service. It will also help close the digital divide by passing the Digital Equity Act, ending digital redlining, and creating a permanent program to help more low-income households access the internet."

Fortunately Cyrus Farivar at NBC obtained a leaked draft copy of broadband grant portion of the infrastructure plan and linked to it in his reporting (something that's annoyingly uncommon in press policy coverage).

At first look, there's some notably good things in it, including very clear signals that the government realizes its broadband maps are hot garbage, and plans to do something about it after Congress passed the DATA Act last year. The leaked draft also makes it clear that any new subsidized networks will need to deliver broadband at speeds of 100 Mbps down, 20 Mbps up. That's notably better than the current FCC "broadband" definition of 25 Mbps down, 3 Mbps up, or the even more pathetic standard of 10 Mbps down, 1 Mbps up used in many previous subsidy programs:

"A draft copy of the 68-page broadband section of the infrastructure bill obtained by NBC News would establish a de facto minimum standard of 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up, and it would require that internet service providers have an eye toward even higher speeds, most likely through fiber optic service.

Note this only changes the broadband definition for this specific grant program, not the overall definition of broadband, which remains at a fairly pathetic 25 Mbps down, 3 Mbps up. And while the 100/20 standard is weaker than the symmetrical 100/100 many wanted (cable and fixed wireless providers lobbied for this because they can't reach the full 100/100 provided by full fiber), it's still progress. Industry had lobbied fiercely against any update to any of the definitions, as doing so only illustrates market failure.

The leak also indicates that the proposal extends the COVID "Emergency Broadband Benefit" (EBB) program, though reporter chatter indicates it will be at a lower rate than it's at currently ($50 discount for low-income Americans, $75 discount for tribal areas). But reading through the proposal it's not really clear if they managed to include any additional guardrails on the program to stop the ISPs currently abusing it to upsell users to more expensive options (which was undermining the whole point).

As with all policy, details and implementation will matter. The proposal isn't final, and as Ars Technica notes, its final form could still feature narrow definitions of broadband speeds (to ensure satellite and wireless options are considered "serving" a neighborhood), strict restrictions on qualifications for low-cost plans, and an overly generous definition of what constitutes a "low cost" plan. A lot of this stuff won't be fully obvious until we see final language and implementation.

While many of these improvements will help, DC historically has been quite averse to doing anything to truly target the real cause of the problem they're trying to fix (regional monopolization and the corruption that protects it). In part because DC is absolutely slathered with Comcast, Verizon, Charter, AT&T, and T-Mobile campaign contributions and lobbying cash, but also because these companies are bone grafted to our intelligence gathering apparatus. AT&T, for example, is effectively a dutiful and patriotic part of government now, further reducing an already fleeting interest in holding it accountable.

As a result, all too often the answer to the broadband problem in DC is "throw more subsidies at it," despite a very clear track record this doesn't work all that well. The other popular DC approach to broadband dysfunction is to apply regulatory band aids on the problem without fixing the underlying rot first. So you get these elaborate bureaucratic fixes like the EBB, which genuinely does help low income Americans by giving them a broadband discount (when it works), but doesn't really cut to the root cause of why US broadband is slow, expensive, and patchy.

In twenty years of covering telecom I've lost track of how many big, well hyped proposals government has unveiled that claim they'll finally fix the problem that is US broadband. Corruption means that most of the time these solutions just nibble around the edges of the real issues or get weakened down steadily by lobbying influence. Refuse to fix corruption, and nothing changes, something exemplified in countless other sectors. That said, the proposal does seem to include things of value, though it remains unclear when a full text of the actual bill will be made available to the public.

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Filed Under: broadband, infrastructure

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  1. icon
    Thad (profile), 30 Jul 2021 @ 8:52am

    Also bears noting that this isn't the only infrastructure bill in the proverbial pipeline; there's still a budget reconciliation bill coming that can pass with a simple majority.

    That's going to get watered down too, to make Manchin and Sinema feel important, but it's looking like it'll still be a good, solid bill.

    Not sure what, if anything, that one will do about broadband, though.

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